From the author of Black Hawk Down and Hue 1968, this is a gripping account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. With access to key sources, Mark Bowden takes us inside the rooms where decisions were made and on the ground where the action unfolded.
After masterminding the attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden managed to vanish. Over the next ten years, as Bowden 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, Bowden 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. Bowden 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.
“In-depth interviews with Obama and other insiders reveal a White House on edge, facing top-secret options, white-knuckle decisions, and unforeseen obstacles . . . Bowden weaves together accounts from Obama and top decision-makers for the full story behind the daring operation.” —Vanity Fair
“The most accessible and satisfying book yet written on the climactic event in the United States’ long war against al Qaeda.” —San Francisco Chronicle
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A Definition of Evil
September 11, 2001
Just before eight o'clock on a brilliant sunny Chicago morning, Barack Obama was driving up Lake Shore Drive when the music on his radio was interrupted by a news bulletin. A plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. He thought little of it. He assumed it meant some poor Cessna pilot had screwed up badly.
The Loop was a familiar fifteen-minute commute from Illinois State Senator Obama's house in Hyde Park. To his right stretched the flat expanse of Lake Michigan and ahead, on his left, was the soaring skyline, anchored by the black monolith of the Sears Tower, spiked with antennae. Surrounded by so much lake and Illinois sky, the drive can feel like free falling into a world of blue.
Obama was bound for the Thompson Center, the city's seventeen-story government building, a monumental shiny structure of curved reflective glass that looks like a grounded spaceship. The setting was remarkable but the business he had there was strictly routine, a hearing of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Today's agenda promised hours of bureaucratic minutiae — rules changes for thirty-nine separate boards, programs, commissions, and departments.
Obama represented District 13 at the northern edge of the South Side. He had two other jobs, one practicing law for a prominent Chicago firm and another as a senior lecturer in constitutional law at Chicago University's Law School. He was a moderately prominent man in his adoptive city, seen locally as a young man of great promise, but for all that his career seemed stalled. He had been soundly beaten in a run for Congress two years earlier — a rebuke, really. He had lost by a margin of two-to-one. His intellect was obvious, maybe too obvious, given his Harvard Law degree and his tenure as the first African-American president of that school's prestigious Law Review. Ivy credentials play well in big city politics only when they come with a smothering dose of street, which Obama did not have. He looked and sounded like a law professor. What he did have was "cool," a word people applied to him in both a good and a bad way. He was cool in that he had style and presence; he was tall and lean, poised and charming. But he was cool in the other way, too. He often seemed distant, aloof, even superior. He had turned forty a month before, too old to be considered a prodigy. His black Jeep Cherokee was the car of a family man. He and his wife, Michelle, had two daughters: infant Sasha, and Malia, who was three.
He parked, ascended in one of the exposed shafts inside the center's vast atrium, and was in his chair listening to a witness read a prepared statement when digital phones began chirping and dinging from every corner of the room. Obama looked down to see messages stacking up on his BlackBerry. Murmuring quickly overtook the testimony. The witness plowed on but soon no one was paying attention to him. The news from lower Manhattan flowed in from a thousand points at once. The second tower had been hit. Both planes were commercial airliners. The towers were on fire. This was no accident. This was a coordinated attack.
At that point the Thompson Center was evacuated and Obama left with everyone else. On the sidewalk outside with the thousands of other Chicagoans evacuated from tall buildings in the Loop, his eyes moved involuntarily up to the Sears Tower. Suddenly the city's landmark skyscraper appeared in a different light. It was no longer just a symbol of the lakeside city's identity. It loomed now like a giant target.
In Sarasota, Michael Morell wondered if a plane was bearing down on him. He was President George W. Bush's CIA briefer and was part of the president's entourage that morning. The visit was big news in the west Florida city. Anyone targeting Bush would know right where to find him, and a commercial airliner would do the job nicely.
Morell had been in the backseat of a van in the president's motorcade when the first plane hit. They were racing down Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key when Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, took a call and then turned to him.
"Michael, do you know anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?"
As the in-house intelligence officer, Morell was the man they looked to for the scoop when something startling happened. The plane had hit while they were en route, so he had heard nothing. He was thinking it was probably a small plane that had gotten disoriented in bad weather, something like that, but he called headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The CIA operations center told him that a crash had occurred, the building was the North Tower, and that it wasn't a small plane but a commercial jet.
The veteran CIA analyst had been up before dawn that day, as he usually was, and had spent some time alone in his hotel room prepping for his regular morning session with the president. Each day at eight o'clock, Morell delivered the President's Daily Briefing (PDB), a summary of the most current intelligence reports from around the world. He had flown south on Air Force One the previous afternoon, the start of a weeklong cross-country trip to promote Bush's education initiatives. They had stopped first in Jacksonville, for a round-table discussion, and then driven down to Sarasota, where they had spent the night at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, on the barrier island that parallels the city shoreline.
Morell's presence had nothing to do with the week's education theme. Like the military officer who carried the president's "football"— the coding device needed to authorize a nuclear attack — the CIA briefer went wherever Bush went. America had not been directly attacked in any significant way since Pearl Harbor, so the morning briefing usually concerned things more abstract: "national security concerns" was more like it. There were always terror threats, but there had been nothing in the brief that morning about anything specific or imminent.
Bush was not given to poring over written reports. He preferred for Morell to "tee up" highlights in the morning briefing, and would then read the most pertinent parts and ask questions. For Morell this made the morning half hour something of a daily command performance. The president enjoyed it. He would later call it "one of the most fascinating parts of my day." It was a heady role, albeit a virtually invisible one. Morell is a slight, precise man with glasses and neatly combed sandy brown hair, a man who seems ordinary by design. His suit is often rumpled and he moves in a distinctly civilian, loose-limbed slouch; he is the kind of man who tends to fold up on a chair, all knees and elbows. That and his indoor pallor made him look almost frail alongside the president's robust security detail and phalanx of ruddy military advisers. In conversation, Morell was intense. He spoke with a crisp Ohio accent, and bore down on ideas bodily, frowning, chin first. For most of his career at the spy agency he had been an Asian specialist.
By the time the president saw him that morning, Bush had already taken a few minutes to read from his Bible, had jogged in the darkness around the Colony golf course, and had dressed and eaten his breakfast. That day's briefing had mostly concerned China. The briefing is still classified, but months earlier a U.S. Navy EP-3, a propeller-driven intelligence-gathering aircraft, had collided with a Chinese jet fighter off the island of Hainan, killing the fighter pilot and triggering a small international crisis, the first of the Bush presidency. Morell also had fresh intel from Russia, again still classified, but fallout there from the then recent Robert Hanssen spy scandal had prompted both countries to expel some of each other's diplomats. Morell then presented new information about the ongoing Palestinian uprising, an increasingly violent affair at the center of the world's news. One item on the agenda prompted the president to call his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who had stayed behind at the White House, but in later years no one would remember what the call was about. In light of what was coming — all four of the doomed commercial airliners were already in the air — the items on that day's agenda would soon seem small.
When the briefing was done, Bush left for his scheduled visit to Emma E. Booker Elementary School, where at nine a.m. he was supposed to visit a second grade classroom before an array of television cameras and reporters. They were at the school when news of the second plane came. Morell was waiting with the rest of the president's staff in a classroom next door. It had a TV set, which was soon showing video of the crash into the South Tower. Both towers were now aflame.
Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff, went next door to whisper the news to the president, who was seated in a chair before the classroom, listening to the students read a book about a pet goat.
"A second plane hit the second tower," said Card. "America is under attack."
Cameras caught the stunned look on the president's face. Some would later ridicule him for it, but what is the correct facial expression for news like that? Bush resolved to stay calm. He remained before the class until the story was finished, but his demeanor had dramatically changed. He had been cheerful, enjoying the children's performance. Now he was grim, his mind clearly elsewhere. When the story was done he complimented the class and then walked briskly into the adjacent classroom. On the TV was video of United Airlines Flight 175 plowing straight into the South Tower in slow motion and erupting into a fireball. Fleischer consulted with the president, who hastily scribbled remarks in longhand before walking back into the crowded classroom to face the cameras and reporters again.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America," he began.
Planes were falling from the sky, suicide hijackers guiding them into the nation's iconic public buildings, incinerating themselves and the planes' passengers and killing thousands. And no one knew how many airplanes there were.
Morell thought they ought to move Bush immediately. He started toward a Secret Service agent, but saw that the protection detail was ahead of him. They pointed him out of the building toward the motorcade. When the president's short statement was finished they were off at once to the airport.
Bad news kept on coming. A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, hit the Pentagon while they were still speeding north on Route 41. Suddenly every tall building, every monument, every American landmark seemed in jeopardy. Where would the next one hit? There was nothing fanciful about the breadth of alarm in those first hours. But along with the fear, the attacks provoked something primal and self-protective. Just seventy-one minutes after the North Tower was hit, hundreds of miles west of New York City and high over Pennsylvania, the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 hastily organized and attacked the men who had hijacked their plane. It crashed in a field just east of Pittsburgh, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The reaction was sudden and national. The military scrambled fighters and secured its bases. Airports were closed, streets blocked, buildings vacated.
In Chicago, when Obama realized that no one was going back into the Thompson Center anytime soon he walked to his car and made the short drive to his law office. The firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill, and Galland was housed in a brick town house. They had a small conference room in the basement with a TV where the office staff gathered to watch the unfolding tragedy. Along with millions around the world, they saw men and women stranded on the upper floors of the Twin Towers, still alive, crowding at windowsills with flames behind them, waving desperately for help that could not reach them, trying to figure out what to do, some of them jumping to their deaths. Obama watched with the others as the towers fell, imagining the thousands trapped inside. They saw the smoke and flames rising from a demolished wall of the Pentagon.
In San Diego, Bill McRaven watched from a hospital bed in his home, where it was still very early in the morning. Even flat on his back, the Navy SEAL captain had a distinct military bearing. His tall body was lean and muscular. His buzz cut drew defiant attention to his jug ears, and the upper and lower halves of his face were slightly askew, which set his long jaw at a slight jutting angle that asserted resolve. Lately, Captain McRaven hadn't been doing much of anything beyond easing himself from hospital bed to wheelchair and back again. It was a humbling debility for someone so physical. He had been a track star at his high school in San Antonio, Texas, and had then joined the military. Like anyone in an elite special ops unit, he had spent his life pushing himself mentally and physically ... which catches up to most people. Two months earlier he'd had a terrifying parachute accident, free-falling 10,000 feet before colliding with the opened chute of another jumper. Violently spinning and only half-conscious, he had managed to pull his rip cord, saving his life, but with one leg tangled in the chute's cords and the other in its risers, the force of the opening chute had nearly torn him in two, cracking his pelvis, breaking his back, and tearing away muscle from his stomach wall. There weren't going to be any daring missions in his near future, and even if he managed to rehab out of the chair he would always be held together by plates and pins.
He'd escaped the hospital by having his bed moved to his home, so that's where he watched the attacks unfold that morning. He wasn't bitter. McRaven accepted the rough sorting of his profession. He figured that if he'd actually been good enough to free-fall with a SEAL team into combat, he would never have had the accident. He had been dealt out. He wasn't concerned about losing the chance to advance in rank. If he had been ambitious for rank, he would never have joined a SEAL team. It was the same in the army; special ops were a path to small-team action, not command, which traditionally involved assuming responsibility for more and more men. The regular force saw the "irregulars," the special ops teams, as ... well, irregular. You went that direction to jump out of airplanes and blow things up and maybe get to test yourself on a real mission even when the nation wasn't officially at war. He was forty-five years old and had served most recently as commodore of the Naval Special Warfare Group in Coronado, which he figured was the best job he would ever have. What he was going to miss was the action.
McRaven had fought in the Persian Gulf War, and had trained for daring missions his entire adult life. There was no way to know exactly how the United States would respond to these attacks, but it was clear that the country was at war and the war was going to pass him by.
Whoever did this, it was not likely to be a nation-state. It was probably a small group of dedicated fanatics working out of a variety of places that were hard to find and hard to reach. War always poses new challenges. A nation, stirred to action by a novel threat, has to feel its way in, has to invent the strategy and tactics that will prevail. It would take time — in this case most of a decade — but McRaven was uniquely positioned to see where it would end. He had made a study of Special Operations. He was already convinced — the first inklings were beginning to appear on TV — that this had been the work of a small terrorist group that called itself al Qaeda. Men like McRaven had heard a lot more about al Qaeda than most of the country. If not that group, then one like it. How would you fight a stealthy, stateless organization that plotted sneak attacks? You fought it with intelligence and with highly trained special units like his SEALs, men who could strike with speed and precision anywhere in the world. He could see it clearly. His squadron would be going to war without him.
But better than most, he also knew this war was going to take time. With time he would heal. With time there might just be a way for him to work himself back into it.
In Washington, Michèle Flournoy saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon across the Potomac River. She had a lot of friends who worked there.
A Harvard- and Oxford-educated scholar, she was, at forty, an influential thinker in defense circles, and one of the few women in Washington who had made national security her career. Everyone who knew her knew that it was only a matter of time before she would assume another top-level position at the Pentagon, but for now, as with many who owed their government jobs to the ascendance of one political party or the other, her background as a senior Pentagon planner during the Clinton administration meant that she was one of many policy experts who were effectively in exile during the first White House term of a Republican administration.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Finish"
Copyright © 2012 Mark Bowden.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1: A Definition of Evil,
2: The Path of Jihad,
3: Taking Up Arms,
4: The Targeting Engine,
5: "Please Make Sure to Keep the Children and All of the Families Away from the Areas That Are Being Photographed and Bombed",
6: Disguised Uncertainty,
7: "Adhering to These Precautions",
8: The Finish,
Acknowledgments and Notes,