Bowden chronicles a top terrorist’s take-down in ‘The Finish’

November 13, 2012

Author’s note: I have written two posts inspired by Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book The Finish. Today’s post is a review of the book. Wednesday’s post considers some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by the book.


Mark Bowden is a respected investigative journalist with nine books to his credit, among them Black Hawk Down, the gripping true story of a military operation gone awry in the Sudan.

Given his background, it’s little surprise that the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden — which is now perhaps the most famous special operations mission in history — drew Bowden’s interest. Nor is it a surprise that the author has produced a fascinating account of the mission that arguably made President Barack Obama able to win a second term in office.

By now the broad outlines of the raid on a large but obscure private residence in Abbottabad, one mile away from Pakistan’s military academy, are well known. As typically told, the story begins when Obama ordered American intelligence agencies to prioritize locating bin Laden, the notorious terrorist and al Qaeda founder who helped launch the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, assaults on New York and Washington, D.C.

When spies tracked down a courier linked to bin Laden, they discovered a familiar-looking thin, tall man pacing in the compound where the courier lived. Obama and top officials began sorting through probabilities and options. Once drone and missile strikes were dismissed as being too crude and leaving too much uncertainty, a special operations team began planning and practicing for a raid near the capital of what is ostensibly an allied nation.

Around the time a window for launching the risky mission opened, Obama flawlessly delivered a standup routine at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. The next night, the president announced to the world that the man who commissioned the Sept. 11 attacks had been shot and killed in a mission executed without loss of American life. Celebration ensued, as well as some clumsy prevarication by administration officials, which Bowden rightly highlights as malarkey.

Bowden takes his time setting the scene. He walks readers through the political career of the future President Barack Obama, paying particular attention to his intellectual evolution on matters of foreign policy and use of force. He also explores the life and jihadi endeavors of bin Laden. (Bowden duly credits Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 book  The Looming Tower, to which much of these passages owe an obvious debt.)

The author also describes Sept. 11, 2001, as experienced by many of the key players, including Obama, then a nearly unknown Illinois state senator; Michael Morell, President George W. Bush’s Central Intelligence Agency briefer, and a member of his traveling party that day, who later led the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden and who recently began his second stint as the agency’s acting director; Bill McRaven, a Navy SEAL who would command innumerable special operations raids, including the one in Abbottabad; and David Petraeus, the Army general whose approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan would make him legendary, and whose tenure as CIA director Morell bracketed.

Perhaps the most valuable information Bowden offers concerns how the American military learned, haltingly at first, how to fight insurgents. The military-intelligence complex benefited, of course, from the increasing use of aerial drones, both armed and otherwise. These machines gave Americans a birds’-eye view of a target site — whether that location was one compound or an entire village thought to harbor insurgents.

But that was hardly the only key to battling insurgents (“bad guys,” as Bowden often calls them).

In the past, after a successful night raid where a member of an insurgent cell was killed or arrested, by morning, or even within a few hours, every critical member of that group would know about it and would have taken evasive action. Information spread quickly. Cell phones would be ditched, computer discs destroyed, bomb-making facilities moved — the bad guys would scatter. But if you get inside that response time — if you could beat their information cycle and learn enough from the first raid either through interrogation or, say, scrutinizing a seized cell phone or hard drive — you might be able to launch a new raid or even multiple raids before word of the first one had gotten out.

The databases enabled local scraps to be instantly cross-checked with the larger data pool. Warrior geeks like [Army Capt. Guy] Filippelli would examine the [so-called] pocket litter, and plug that into the national collection; it was like jumping from the middle of the woods to a panoramic view of the forest. The warrior geeks helped connect the dots for the shooters, lifting order from disorder.

In strategic terms, Bowden writes, the American seized the initiative. They forced insurgents to move and communicate almost constantly, which made them easier for the military to locate.

Bin Laden, of course, was not easy to find. If Bowden states how long he lived in the Abbottabad compound, I missed it; however, it seems the al Qaeda founder holed up there for many months. He evidently left his home, which had reflective glass impenetrable to spying eyes, only to walk the shaded perimeter of the walled compound. The increasingly isolated terrorist leader wrote ever more plaintive missives; messengers physically carried these away from the property until they could be safely transmitted to allies.

Bin Laden shared the compound with his wives, children and the families of his courier and that man’s brother. The children, especially bin Laden’s, seldom left the property. The courier and his brother lied about where they were living in phone conversations. They would not make phone calls from the residence. The courier, Ibrahim Ahmed, would not even turn on his phone until he had driven an hour from the compound.

It’s not clear whether Obama’s prioritizing the location of bin Laden had an effect. It’s possible, Bowden suggests, that the complex web of tenuously connected intelligence that pointed to Abbottabad can be credited entirely to the methods developed and implemented under Bush and would have turned up when and how it did no matter who was president.

Nevertheless, found bin Laden was — found and killed.

Writes Bowden,

For Americans, it supplied the right hard ending to the story of 9/11, and will likely mark the symbolic end of al Qaeda, if not the real one. The organization itself was already reeling when its founder died, as much from the unfolding revolutions in the Arab world as the constant pounding of American drones and special operators, which is why bin Laden’s death, or martyrdom, did not act as a spur to recruitment.

One man’s death can’t undo the deaths of thousands of other people, nor the physical damage caused by assaults in this nation and the wars — overt and otherwise — that ensued in other states. But bin Laden’s killing did provide a punctuation mark of sorts to a 10-year period overshadowed by Sept. 11, 2001.

Like many other Americans, I found the killing of the al Qaeda founder a mostly satisfactory resolution to that terror-stained decade. And like many readers of Bowden, I suspect, I found The Finish to be a very satisfactory account of the raid on Abbottabad.


Reminder: In a post on Wednesday, I will consider some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by this book.

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