Thursday, June 8, 2017

Review: Does anyone still remember Osama bin Laden?

Review of: The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

In retrospect, it sounds nostalgically naïve: the notion that finding Osama bin Laden, the man behind the 9/11 attacks, would signal the beginning of the end of terrorism. In an era when bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization has been superseded by organizations more vicious and fratricidal than anything bin Laden himself ever imagined, I wondered if there were still any lessons the rest of us can learn from the long, brutal search for the elusive Saudi jihadist. In The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Mark Bowden, bestselling author of Black Hawk Down, provides some answers to that question, as well as the most balanced treatment I have seen of the hunt for bin Laden and its immediate aftermath.

Granted, when The Finish was published in 2012, there was still hope that the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring would sweep away the dictators and demagogues who had long plagued the Middle East. Hope that terrorism would wane with the decimation of al Qaeda’s leadership by U.S. and coalition drones, and the increasing disgust of Sunni adherents over attacks that killed far more fellow Muslims than American soldiers.

And although those hopes have been dashed, there were some lasting benefits from the long hunt, if only in developing new ways to make war in the 21st century.

Bowden begins with a prologue: the capture of a massive cache of information – references to “names, photos, travel documents, expense reports for phone cards, clothing, vehicles, fuel, money transfers, and many other detailed documents. . . For centuries, the basic tactics of infantry warfare were ‘fire and maneuver’”. For this century, ‘information and intelligence is the fire and maneuver.’” Cracking the captured data cache helped solidify the importance of intelligence gathering and its analysis by high-capability computers in the role of warfare.

Bowden also documents the ideological evolution and eventual rise of Barack Obama following 9/11 and bin Laden’s parallel rise from rich-kid financier of jihadis against the armies of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (and fall) to man on the run by the end of the decade following the 9/11 attacks.

Meanwhile, beyond intelligence gathering and analysis, the U.S. was developing two significant weapons against bin Laden and al Qaeda, weapons that would prove their usefulness – and their limitations – repeatedly.

One such set of weapons were the remotely-piloted aircraft commonly known as drones. Their capabilities evolved from long-term aerial spying into carriers of missiles able to hit target
s with limited potential for loss of civilian life. And no physical danger at all to their pilots, housed miles, even oceans away from where the drones were deployed.

The other weapon was an array of special operations forces whose “principles of the lightning raid – simple, secret, and well rehearsed, executed with surprise, speed, and purpose” would bring down bin Laden himself in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Until little more than a month before the raid on May 1, 2011, Obama and his advisers had debated whether to use a drone strike or special ops – in this case, a team of Navy SEALS – to attack bin Laden. The decision went to the SEALS.

The raid itself, from the time military helicopters flying from Afghanistan reached the Abbottabad compound, until they look off again, took approximately 30 minutes. It left four men dead -- bin Laden, one of his adult sons, and two other men living at the compound. The wife of one of the men unrelated to bin Laden was also dead, and bin Laden’s youngest wife was wounded. No Americans were injured.

In America, people danced in the streets at the news of bin Laden’s death. Meanwhile, more would-be terrorists waited, perhaps glad the old man was dead, but eager to snatch his bloody mantle for themselves. 


I've spent this week catching up on reading and reviews. Tomorrow, something lighter: Christopher Andersen's deliciously dishy Game of Crowns: Elizabeth, Camilla, Kate, and the Throne.

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