The Finish

Title:                      The Finish

Author:                 Mark Bowden

Bowden, Mark (2012). The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press

LCCN:    2012464581

HV6430.B55 B69 2012b


  • This work is a dramatic account of the hunt for and defeat of Osama bin Laden draws on unprecedented access to primary sources to trace how key decisions were made, revealing events from the perspectives of an adept President Obama and an increasingly despondent bin Laden. After masterminding the attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden managed to vanish. Over the next ten years, as the author shows, America found that its war with al Qaeda, a scattered group of individuals who were almost impossible to track, demanded an innovative approach. Step by step, the author describes the development of a new tactical strategy to fight this war, the fusion of intel from various agencies and on the ground special ops. After thousands of special forces missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the right weapon to go after bin Laden had finally evolved. By Spring 2011, intelligence pointed to a compound in Abbottabad; it was estimated that there was a 50/50 chance that Osama was there. The author shows how three strategies were mooted: a drone strike, a precision bombing, or an assault by Navy SEALs. In the end, the President had to make the final decision. It was time for the finish.


  • A definition of evil — The path of Jihad — Taking up arms — The targeting engine — “Please make sure to keep the children and all of the families away from the areas that are being photographed and bombed” — Disguised uncertainty — “Adhering to these precautions” — The finish — Glitter.


Date Posted:      October 27, 2015

Reviewed by Hayden Peake[1]

Readers of Black Hawk Dawn[2] and Guests of the Ayato!lah[3] have learned that author Mark Bowden is a skillful storyteller. The Finish follows that precedent and establishes it as essential reading on the subject of Osama bin Laden’s killing. In this book, Bowden adds to the well-known basics of the story background and texture about the principal characters and operational circumstances that have not been provided in other accounts. To do this, he consulted the materials captured at Bin Laden’s compound and now held at West Point; interviewed President Obama, reporting his views on key aspects of the operation; and conducted interviews with many of the principals, although not all are named.

The Finish sets the stage by reviewing the pre-9/11 mindsets of key players and reveals some interesting preconceptions. President Obama, for instance, had, until 9/11; imagined terrorists shaped by “ignorance and poverty,” (p. 23) a view he would soon revise. Bowden also lays the groundwork for a gradual convergence of views with Obama’s predecessor on certain areas of the war on terror. A short summary of Bin Laden’s evolution into Islamic terrorism shows how, ironically, he used modern Western communication techniques to attract dedicated fanatics to join a “backward looking movement with forward looking tactics.” (p. 52)

The balance of the book tracks the search for Bin Laden from the early frustrated attempts by CIA’s Alec Station, through the revitalization of efforts after 9/11, and persistent analysis of information that began to lead to the clues to his whereabouts. On this point, Bowden counters the claim “that torture played no role in tracking down Bin Laden,” when he notes that “in the first two important steps down the trail, that claim crumbles.” (p. 113)

Bowden interrupts the story of the search from time to time and turns to what Bin Laden is doing and thinking as the end nears. He quotes letters to his subordinates that lay out his concepts for more terror, while showing concern for the families whose men were killed by drones, and for the excessive killing of Muslims.

By late 2010, Bin Laden’s compound had been discovered. From that point on, Bowden concentrates on the players who worked to convince the president that the al-Qaeda leader was very likely to be there, the evidence they developed, and several options advanced for killing him. Bowden does a fine job of conveying a sense of the pressure that dominated the planning and the controversies that resulted before the final decision was made. Some accounts held that the president, after the last planning session, said he wanted to think about the decision overnight. Bowden reports that the president told him “he had all but made up his mind when he left the Thursday meeting.” (p. 206)

Bowden treats in detail SEAL Team 6 planning, the importance of the president’s insistence that they be prepared to fight their way out, insistence on adding appropriate backup support and, of course, the successful mission itself. He admits that some of the details he provides conflict with other accounts published since his book went to press and comments that future editions of the book will reflect the differences.

The Finish holds your attention from page 1. It is an impressive, finely honed story of a gutsy call and an operation professionally executed.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 1, Spring/Summer 2013, p. 109). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions ofCIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[2] Bowden, Mark (1999). Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press

[3] Bowden, Mark (2006). Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press [LCCN: 2005058862\

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