The Finish – Mark Bowden


The book tells the story of the killing of Osama bin Laden.  As is typically the case with any Bowden book (and I’ve now read four, I think), it’s incredibly well researched and well-told.  He gives a blow-by-blow account of all the planning, searching, sleuthing, and luck that went into finding and killing bin Laden.

It’s easy to forget that bin Laden was on our country’s radar all the way back in the mid-90s.  He made a name for himself in the Arab world fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets and then used his notoriety gained there (along with his money – he was one of 56 children of a Saudi billionaire) to found Al-Qaeda (which means “the foundation” or “the base” in Arabic) in the late 80s.  He came to the attention of the US after some embassy bombings in the nineties.  Interestingly (maddeningly), the Clinton administration had the opportunity on more than one occasion to take him out – and was desperately urged to do so by the intelligence community – and didn’t pull the trigger.

Obviously after 9/11 he was the most wanted man in the world and the Bush administration did all it could to find him.  That said, it took TEN YEARS to find him and didn’t happen until Obama was president.  The ultimate success of finding him, however, was the culmination of all ten years and was attributable to the Bush years as much as to the Obama years.

The way they found him was through a courier that was close to him.  As the CIA and military caught more and more operatives within Al-Qaeda and then interrogated them (sometimes by using “enhanced” methods), they kept hearing the same name over and over.  It was by tracking this name that they finally came to a large compound in an affluent neighborhood in Pakistan.  As they monitored this compound, it became more and more suspicious and seemed to point to a good possibility that bin Laden lived there.

The problem with ultimately deciding to act, however, was that they could never know for sure if he was there.  They knew that several families lived in the compound (it was roughly 38,000 square feet), and that one family lived on the upper floors and never seemed to come out.  They also knew that one man – who roughly fit bin Laden’s description – took a walk every day outside but always under an awning so they couldn’t get a good look at him.  They tried several ways to positively identify him but were never able to confirm it for sure.  One of the most interesting ways they tried was to approach a Pakistani doctor who had several clinics treating children.  They told him that if he set up a vaccination clinic in the targeted neighborhood, they’d fund it in its entirety on the condition that he turned over to them all the used syringes.  They thought that the offer of free vaccinations might lure the children of the mystery man out of the compound, and then they could test the DNA of the used syringes to make a positive ID of bin Laden.  Unfortunately, numerous children came to the clinic, but none of the kids from the mystery family in the compound (and one of the sad facts of the story is that the Pakistani government later imprisoned the doctor when they found he had assisted the Americans – they did this even though he had no idea that he was being used – he was simply interested in helping Pakistani children).

They finally decided through various means that it was worth going after the compound.  They couldn’t be absolutely sure the mystery man was bin Laden, but they had enough evidence to act.  The decision then became how to do it.  They settled on three options:  One – they could vaporize the compound.  Drop enough bombs on it to make sure no one in it survived.  The problem with this option is that there would be collateral damage in the surrounding neighborhood and they’d never know for sure that bin Laden was among the dead.  Two – they could use a drone to assassinate him.  This would have the advantage of eliminating the collateral damage and innocent loss of life, but the disadvantage again was that they’d never be able to recover the body and make sure it was in fact bin Laden.  The third option – and the one they settled on – was to send in a team and either capture him or take him out, and either way have the body to make a positive ID.

The problems with the third option was how to make it work without arousing the Pakistani military, and how to explain it later to the Pakistani government.  They decided that they if they went in with enough stealth and speed, they thought they could get in and out before anyone noticed.  And as to the Pakistani government, they decided that getting bin Laden was worth risking what was an already tenuous relationship between the two countries.

The way the operation was supposed to work was that two helicopters were to fly from Afghanistan to the compound shortly after midnight on a moonless night, have the SEALs rappel down into the compound, then get bin Laden.  The way it actually worked was that the first helicopter over the compound ran into air currents and started to crash, whereupon the pilot had the presence of mind – and this is really amazing – to turn the chopper such that its tail hit the top of the wall of the compound and forced it to come down hard on its bottom side.  If he hadn’t done this, the helicopter would have crashed on its side and potentially killed everyone on board (with the turning rotors coming apart).  Instead, the crash was hard and the helicopter was put out of commission, but everyone survived.  The second helicopter landed outside the compound and the SEALs climbed over the walls.

Once the SEALs were on the ground, they started toward the top floor of the building.  They knew there were probably three men in the compound – two brothers with their families, and bin Laden.  The two brothers came out after they heard the disturbance from the chopper – one shooting at them with an AK-47 – and the SEALs killed them both (it’s very apparent in the book that while the planners talked about possibly capturing bin Laden rather than killing him, the SEALs never had any doubts as to which would happen – this was a team full of veterans of dozens of missions in Iraq and were used to dealing with fanatics and booby-traps, so they went in with the perspective of eliminating targets, not interacting with them).  They then made their way to the third floor where they found bin Laden and one of his wives.  The wife tried to get in their way and they shot her (she survived), they then shot bin Laden twice – once through the eye.

After they killed bin Laden, they zipped his body into a body bag, grabbed everything of any value in his room (computers, hard drives, etc), blew up the downed helicopter so the Pakistanis couldn’t get it, and then flew back to Afghanistan (one team flew on a backup Chinook helicopter the planners had waiting for just such an emergency).  The Pakistani military knew nothing about it until it was over (how would you feel as one of their military brass to know the US military was able to fly for hours over your airspace, kill numerous people in a densely-packed neighborhood, blow up one of its own helicopters, and fly for hours back over your airspace without you ever knowing about it??).  Once back in Afghanistan, they positively identified the body, then flew it to a US Navy ship where it was buried at sea.

The book is fascinating and I’d really recommend it.  It was enormously interesting to read about all the searching and tracking it took to find bin Laden, and then all the planning that went into the raid.  Bowden also used correspondence found in bin Laden’s room to somewhat recreate what his life was like leading up to his final night, so the book showed that side too.  The story has a little bit of a pro-Obama/anti-Bush bent (Bowden actually interviewed Obama for the book), but even with that he was careful to give credit to all the work that was done during the Bush administration and didn’t shy away from showing how much the Obama administration politicized the killing for its own gain.  None of the Obama/Bush material took away from the book, however, so it’s still very much worth the time.

One final thought about this.  After reading the book, I read a few things on the internet just to answer some questions I had.  I saw that they did a poll after the killing that said 90% of the American people were in favor of the raid.  That’s to be expected, but it made me think – what did the other 10% want?

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