I vividly remember the moment I heard that a second plane hit the World Trade Center. Equally as vivid was the moment I learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US forces. These two events bookend a dark period of war and economic stagnation for the United States. The killing of Bin Laden brought a deep sense of closure to millions of Americans whose lives had been forever altered, to one degree or another, by the 9-11 attacks.
Mark Bowden, the author of the best-selling Black Hawk Down, has written the definitive version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden titled The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. He interviewed many high ranking officials, including President Obama, but also includes the field work and low level organization that contributed to the 10 year long operation.
Surprisingly, this book is actually a tribute to effective bureaucracy. There was really no one individual responsible for finding Bin Laden: it was years of bureaucratic work, tirelessly pursuing leads, pouring over the same information time and time again, that led to small breakthroughs that eventually led to the raid in Abbottabad.
Some of that information was obtained by torture, or ‘enhanced interrogation’ if you prefer the euphemism. Bowden, to his credit, does not shy away from this inconvenient fact. It is not to say torture provided a straight line to Bin Laden, or that we would not have found him without the torture, or even that the information was crucial, but it did play a role. This is discussed with nuance and clarity, and is one of the highlights of the book.
Bowden is in familiar territory when discussing the special operations forces that conducted the actual raid. He familiarizes the reader with the unofficial fifth branch of the military, the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM. Contained within SOCOM are the Army Special Forces, Delta Force, The Navy Seals, The Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, and the specialized counter terrorist unit who performed the raid: Seal Team Six.
As exciting as it is, the actual raid doesn’t take up much space in the book. Bowden devotes far more time to the decisions, large and small, that led to up to it. Arguably the largest was President Obama’s final decision to approve the raid. Despite the rhetoric from the Republican primaries, this was far from a ‘no brainer.’ Despite a 10 year operation, no one was even sure the Bin Laden was in the compound in Abbotabad. President Obama’s top intelligence advisor gave it no more than a 60% chance, and told the President that the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was much stronger. He should know: he was George W. Bush’s advisor as well.
Like all stories whose is ending is well known, this book is about the journey, not the destination. We all know how it ended: a bullet to the head from a Seal Team Six operator and a burial at sea. How we got there is a fascinating story, and well worth your time.