“The Finish”: Mark Bowden on the Hunt for Osama bin Laden

THE DAILY BEAST – Mark Bowden’s The Finish is the first book, and, to date, the definitive one, that looks at the Osama bin Laden raid from President Obama’s perspective as he sat in the Oval Office debating how to continue the then-seven-year hunt for the al Qaeda leader. Bowden was granted rare access to the president to discuss the raid and to the strategic thinking that went into its planning at the White House, CIA, and Joint Special Operations Command. Bowden, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has most famously written about U.S. Army intervention in Somalia in Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999), Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2001), and cyberattacks and security in Worm: The First Digital World War (2011).

Aside from the human drama about the massive intelligence hunt for bin Laden, Bowden also draws a fascinating picture of then–Joint Special Operations commander Adm. William McRaven (McRaven is now commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command). The Finish is, as Bowden told me, “the story of two men, Osama bin Laden and President Obama. Essentially, the story is about Obama deciding to kill someone. The story is also about bin Laden deciding to kill many, and how these two men arrived at that point where they either had appropriated to themselves the authority to order someone’s death or had sought and been given that responsibility.”

In the 18 months since the killing of bin Laden on May 2, 2011, at least three other books have been published about the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that assaulted the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where bin Laden had been living. Of these books, No Easy Day remains the only eyewitness account—a fact that might change, says Bowden, as he suspects other SEALs may come forward to tell their stories. Bowden readily compliments the scholarship and reportorial scope of Peter Bergen’s Manhunt, which, like The Finish, takes a global, strategic view of the mission. This point of view sets these two books apart from No Easy Day and SEAL Target Geronimo, by former SEAL Team 6 member Chuck Pfarrer, the first book published about the raid (and a book I blurbed), which, Bowden says, he was told to avoid during his reporting. In varying degrees, these books offer different accounts—some slight, some large—about what actually happened that night.

The Finish describes a new kind of war fighting—the fusion of intelligence from vast and scattered sources—to track and apprehend, or kill, the enemy. The Finish is as much about the hunt for bin Laden as it is about the complex—and unprecedented—hunt itself. It’s a gripping tale.

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“The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.” By Mark Bowden. $26; Atlantic Monthly Press; 304 pages. (AP Photo)

Doug Stanton: You’re about to start a national book tour. When someone asks what The Finish is about, what are you going to tell them?

Mark Bowden: [laughs] That’s the best of all questions. To me, the story of hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden is one of the major stories of the last decade in American life and in terms of our relationship with the world. I saw the story as being about the evolution of our war-fighting method beginning with 9/11, which dramatically reoriented our national defense structure and priorities, to the evolution of the means to defeat a new kind of enemy—and obviously Osama bin Laden symbolized that new kind of enemy. I think many of tactics and techniques that were developed to go after al Qaeda came into play in the hunt for bin Laden. So, in a way, the story of finding and killing him encompasses that larger story.

“There are terror organizations—I think Hizbullah is one—that are capable of that kind of stuff, but if I think if the goal was to defeat al Qaeda, then the death of Osama bin Laden really sealed the deal.”

Within that, it’s also the story of two men, Osama bin Laden and President Obama. Essentially, the story is about Obama deciding to kill someone. The story is also about bin Laden deciding to kill many, and how these two men arrived at that point where they either had appropriated to themselves the authority to order someone’s death or had sought and been given that responsibility. What is the way that those two justify the decision that they make?

How is today’s world different from the world you wrote about in Black Hawk Down, which describes the 1993 battle in Somalia, during which it’s likely some members of al Qaeda participated?

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