Former CIA analyst who helped track down Osama bin Laden shares her story

File photo of Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden became a household name after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but a group of CIA agents were tracking him before we even knew his identity.

It all started with a talented group of women inside the CIA and various other federal agencies. One of those women is now a professor at Coastal Carolina University.

Cynthia Storer started her career in the Counter Terrorist Unit at the CIA more than twenty years ago. Her work was instrumental in tracking the leader of one of the most well-established terrorist groups in the world.

"When we first started, bin Laden was living in the open but he didn't make it known to his friends that he was running a terrorist organization," according to Storer.

In the late 1990s Storer and her colleagues slowly began to disrupt the networks Osama bin Laden was associated with.

Storer says the operation at that point was to focus on capturing people associated with the networks and sending them to their countries of origin for prosecution. At that time, they still weren't trying to kill bin Laden, according to Storer.

"The imperative after 9/11 was obviously destroy or dismantle Al Qaeda."

One of the most talked about films of the year, Zero Dark Thirty, followed the hunt for bin Laden after the 2001 terrorist attacks, but many questions have been circulating about the films portrayal of the process.

The film follows a CIA analyst named Maya on a tireless crusade to pinpoint bin Laden's exact location. Was Maya's character based on a single person at the Central Intelligence Agency?

The work Maya does in the film is actually based on an enormous team effort, according to Storer, using information that goes all the way back intelligence developed by Storer and her collegaues in the 1990s.

For someone so close to the film's subject for so many years, Storer has some conflicting thoughts about Zero Dark Thirty.

She questions how the movie dealt with the morality of war and enhanced interrogation methods, saying some of the tortuous techniques portrayed skew pretty far from reality.

"The United States just doesn't do things like they were shown in the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty. I'm not saying some of those aren't considered torture. Certainly waterboarding could be considered torture, but it does a disservice to my former colleagues making them look like a bunch of brutes. It doesn't help the debate on if we should be doing these things in the future."

That's one of the many reasons she was excited to be a part of the HBO documentary MANHUNT that shows the enormous effort to track bin Laden starting with Storer and some female colleagues nearly two decades ago.

Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, MANHUNT goes back to the early 1990's and puts all the pieces together through 9/11, then the hunt for bin laden himself.

She and two former colleagues teamed up with MANHUNT's director Greg Barker to share their side of the story. After vetting Barker and he vetting his subjects, Storer says they knew Barker was going to treat the matter dispassionately and was not going to put any political spin on it.

"His agenda was just to tell the story, and that was the first time anybody had been willing to do that," according to Storer.

Zero Dark Thiry and the HBO documentary do share one common theme that Storer says is crucial to understanding the whole story. They both share stories of war and espionage through the eyes of strong women, instead of leading male characters.

She and her female colleagues, aptly given the name the Sisterhood in the documentary, were really the first "diggers" responsible for putting all the pieces together.

"We often thought of ourselves as sisters; like brothers in arms, but sisters," Storer confirmed, and for her it was the supreme irony that a group of women was responsible for tracking down the leader of Al Qaeda and was ultimately responsible for Osama bin Laden's death.

"Women should be pregnant, barefoot and covered up and in the kitchen, and here they were going after him."

Storer left the CIA long before the May 1, 2011 mission to kill Osama bin Laden was set in motion, but her reaction to his death was something she says many of her colleagues shared.

"There's no time to celebrate because your brain automatically goes to the next thing," Storer said. "Who's going to take over, are there going to be revenge attacks, what is the organization going to be like now."

While mission to kill Osama bin Laden was successful, Storer warns the war isn't over.

"The game is going to change," she said.

How it will change is still yet to be seen.