x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Finish, the latest book on Osama bin Laden, starts off badly

The latest of many books on the killing of Osama bin Laden is a lopsided account that relies too heavily on second- and third-hand sources.

Barack Obama, second from left, Joe Biden, the vice president, left, 
Robert Gates, the defense secretary, right, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary 
of state, receive an update on Osama bin Laden. AFP
Barack Obama, second from left, Joe Biden, the vice president, left, Robert Gates, the defense secretary, right, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, receive an update on Osama bin Laden. AFP

The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden

Mark Bowden

Atlantic Monthly Press


Perhaps the most telling section of Mark Bowden's account of America's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is to be found in the 200-word addendum, printed on a small white card and slipped into all copies of the first edition.

"As this book was coming off press," it begins, "one of the Navy Seals who was on the raid on the Abbottabad compound published a book in which he gave an account of the shooting of bin Laden that differs slightly from the one that appears on page 229 of this book."

One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Bowden to write those words. His 1999 book Black Hawk Down, the detailed account of a US army raid in Mogadishu that went badly wrong, leaving 18 US soldiers dead, was a masterclass in forensic journalism, hailed as "the most accurate, detailed account of modern combat ever written".

In a sense, Bowden's "error", which originated in second- and third-hand accounts of Operation Neptune Spear by people who were involved at the highest level behind the scenes, but not there on the ground, doesn't matter.

It certainly doesn't alter the fundamental truth of that May day in 2011, when American vengeance finally caught up with the man responsible for 9/11 and many other acts of terrorism.

In Bowden's version, the cornered bin Laden is pursued into a bedroom by two Seals, one of whom shoots him once in the chest and then again through his left eye.

In No Easy Day, the pseudonymous "Mark Owen" described how bin Laden was actually shot in the head as he peered out of the room, into which he was pursued and finished off with several rounds to his body.

What the addendum does do, however, is illustrate another reality, and one much more problematic than a minor misrepresentation of the final two or three seconds of a national mission that had begun nine and a half years earlier.

It is, to paraphrase the poet Maya Angelou, that facts can obscure the truth.

In Black Hawk Down, Bowden was dealing with a solid, quantifiable world of blood and bullets, reconstructing a narrative timeline mapped out across a three-dimensional landscape signposted by fixed, indisputable incidents.

In The Finish, he has the trickier task of reconstructing a far more complex landscape, one that is strung out along a longer timeline and which, built as it is exclusively upon the accounts of US political, military and intelligence insiders, each with their own vested interests to protect and project, offers very little to the mapmaker in the way of independently verifiable bearings.

Perspective is all. As well as preferring, for obvious reasons, Owen's first-hand account of the raid on the compound to Bowden's third-hand version (he spoke to none of the Seals), it is also instructive to read Bowden's book alongside the monograph of Shaukat Qadir, a former member of Pakistan's military who earlier this year published in The National an account of his investigation into the killing of bin Laden.

Two versions of the hunt for bin Laden emerge and, whatever the value of the "facts" each presents, together they speak volumes about the level of distrust that exists between the Pakistanis and the Americans, supposed allies in the "war on terror".

In The Finish, Pakistan plays no constructive role. Bowden, basing his version of events on a series of interviews with key players, ranging from US President Barack Obama and his close circle to (anonymous) members of the CIA, paints a picture of a small, dedicated band of US analysts who began tracking bin Laden in 1991.

Over the years, eight or more chances to kill or capture him were squandered, but after 9/11, the US government's military and intelligence communities became intensely focused on the hunt.

On May 26, 2009, just four months into his presidency, Obama told Leon Panetta, the CIA director, and Mike Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, that he wanted the hunt for bin Laden to move to the top of the list.

The rest of the story will doubtless be coming soon to a cinema screen near you. But that story, as Bowden concedes, will be covered with what he calls "glitter".

No sooner had the news of the death of bin Laden been released to the world, than "the White House team soon began hyping a story that really did not need to be spun … small falsities began to accrue around the story like splashes of glitter".

There were tactical falsehoods - bin Laden had put up a fight; he had used his women as human shields - but there were also political inventions.

"In conversations with me," writes Bowden, "a number of top administration officials [described] how Bush's two wars had crowded out the bin Laden hunt".

Yes, says Bowden, Obama deserved credit (and he certainly claimed it) for his redirection of effort in 2009.

But "the larger truth is that finding bin Laden was a triumph of bureaucratic intelligence gathering and analysis, an effort that began under President Clinton and improved markedly after 9/11 under President Bush". But back to Shaukat Qadir's account.

Perhaps Bowden himself - guided solely by Obama insiders - is peddling an equally unreliable version of the truth.

According to Qadir's investigation, satellite surveillance of the Abbottabad compound was initiated in July 2010 only after a request from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which had grown suspicious of its occupants.

"The questions I raise," wrote Qadir in March, "lend credence to the likelihood that the CIA was, in fact, telling lies and, in all probability, actually began tracking OBL only in 2010, perhaps after receiving the lead provided to them by the ISI."

In Bowden's book, however, Pakistan and its security services - allies, supposedly, in the counterterrorism effort - appear only as a problem to be sidestepped.

Bowden peddles the official line - that painstaking CIA work tracked down a known Al Qaeda courier, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, aka Ahmed the Kuwaiti, and, thanks to cunning triangulation of responses to his name by three captured senior members of Al Qaeda, a connection with bin Laden was made.

Yet, although not mentioned in Bowden's account, it is no secret that one crucial lead supplied to the Americans by Pakistan was Ahmed's mobile phone number, which they passed on to the National Security Agency in 2009. It was this breakthrough that led to the lengthy surveillance of the Abbottabad compound by assets on the ground, satellites and high-flying drones, which determined that in addition to Ahmed and his brother and their families, a third, secretive family was living there.

The CIA came to believe that the man they saw taking daily walks in the grounds - "The Pacer" - was none other than bin Laden.

According to the CIA, Ahmed switched on his phone only to make calls to family members far from the compound and always lied about his location, but it was one of these calls that finally gave away the game. The CIA knew Ahmed had worked with Al Qaeda before, but there was no evidence to suggest he was still connected to the organisation. But then a friend persistently asked the question "What are you doing now?" and, after being initially evasive, Ahmed finally said "I'm with the same ones as before".

To the attuned ears of the CIA analysts, it was the reaction that sealed it.

"His friend seemed to know immediately what they meant," writes Bowden, "and, after uttering 'May Allah be with you', dropped the subject."

So where was Pakistan and the ISI during all of this? In Bowden's account, at least, written out of the story.

America's distrust of Pakistan, then as now, had been crystallised in a comment made by Obama in August 2007, more than a year before he was elected president. Asked about the resurgent Al Qaeda and Taliban presence in Pakistan's north-western tribal areas, he said: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

In office, Obama went even further. Islamabad was kept completely out of the loop about the planned Abbottabad raid, 180 kilometres into Pakistan.

The last top-level meeting before the mission was launched was held in the White House on the afternoon of Thursday, April 28. For a few tense moments it seemed as though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might veto the Seal option. There would, she expected, be dire consequences for America's relationship with Pakistan, but she "wound up concluding that, because it was built more on mutual dependence than friendship and trust", the relationship would probably survive.

Either way, the bottom line was that America regarded a complete breakdown of relations with Pakistan as a price worth paying for the head of Osama bin Laden. Even more extraordinary, if the raid went wrong, America stood ready to go to war against its ally and fight its way out of the country.

An airborne rapid-reaction force waited close by, ready to move in if Pakistani troops intervened, while US navy jets were on standby to hit Pakistani aircraft and missile sites.

Why did the Americans so distrust their allies (an "insult" that made no sense, according to Shaukat Qadir; Pakistan's capture and rendering of senior Al Qaeda operatives to the US was "almost unparalleled")?

No answer is found in Bowden's account, an extremely rough first draft of history that will do nothing to improve relations between the US and Pakistan.


Jonathan Gornall is a former features writer for The National.