Author and journalist Mark Bowden is a veteran of the process that begins with in-depth reporting of an event for newspaper or magazine articles, develops into a nonfiction book and then draws the attention of filmmakers.
His best-seller and National Book Award finalist Black Hawk Down, for example, started out as a series of 29 articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the 1993 battle for Mogadishu, Somalia, and went on to become the basis of a feature film.
But his latest book, The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, developed in reverse. The process began when Bowden, an instructor in English at the University of Delaware, was approached to write a screenplay for a possible film about the U.S. mission that located and killed 9/11 mastermind bin Laden.
Bowden, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and national correspondent for The Atlantic, called on contacts he had made at the White House when writing a previous magazine profile of Vice President Joe Biden. He lined up interviews almost immediately to start his reporting but then learned that a different film project about bin Laden was already under way in Hollywood.
"But, it was a fascinating story and it appeared that I was going to have some surprising and remarkable access" to officials in the White House, Pentagon and CIA, where he also had professional relationships from writing Black Hawk Down, he said. "I spent the next year reporting around Washington, and I ended up with what I think is the most interesting part of the story — not the raid itself but what led up to it."
In Bowden's view, the story began on 9/11 and needed to be told from that starting point. From the day of those terroristic attacks, he said, U.S. officials were on a mission to find bin Laden, who was equally determined not to be found.
"When people talk to me about the book, they always ask why it took the United States so long to get him," Bowden said. "I think it's more surprising that they found him at all. I don't think bin Laden left that compound [in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs killed him in a May 2011 raid] for five years. That's a serious way to hide."
The years of U.S. intelligence-gathering, of patiently sifting through countless amounts of data collected by computers and CIA operatives and satellites, is what finally brought about the successful raid, Bowden said: "We all complain about bureaucracy, but what bureaucracy is really good at is that kind of detail work by teams of really smart people, and that's how they finally found him."
He described the raid itself as meticulously planned and daring — and the SEALs as highly skilled and fearless — but the decade of advance work remained the focus of The Finish. And despite the access Bowden gained to sources, including a background briefing by the CIA and eventually a meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, he said no one leaked him any classified information or rushed to take part in interviews.
The book, published by Grove/Atlantic, has won acclaim for its detailed reporting that places the raid in context and earlier this month reached No. 7 on the New York Times best-seller list. In a published review, Ramesh Ratnesar, a writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation think tank, praised Bowden's "storytelling gifts" and called the book "the most accessible and satisfying book yet written" about the Abbottabad raid.
Bowden summed up his work this way: "It's a fascinating story, and I loved telling it."
A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden has been teaching part-time at UD since 2010 with an emphasis on journalism and creative writing. In early December, he spoke about The Finish at an invitation-only event on campus for members of the Delaware Diamonds Society.