A U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flies over Somalia in September 1993, a month before the battle of Mogadishu.
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the deadliest firefight U.S. forces had faced since Vietnam.
Sunday, October 06, 2013
The incident ultimately pushed the U.S. out of Somalia, leaving a safe haven for extremist groups.
continues to impact U.S. foreign policy today, from the rise of
Islamists to the nation's reaction when asked to send American troops
into harm's way.
'Things Did Not Go Well'
was never even supposed to be a Battle of Mogadishu. In one of his
final acts after losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, President
George H.W. Bush sent American forces into Somalia on a humanitarian
mission to bring food to the victims of a raging civil war and man-made
But by the fall of 1993, the mission had expanded to
one of restoring a government in Somalia. On Oct. 3, a special ops team
was sent into Mogadishu to arrest two top lieutenants of the warlord
Mohammed Aidid, who controlled the city.
"They estimated it
would take 30 minutes to 45 minutes to conduct the raid, but things did
not go well," says journalist Mark Bowden, who reported on the events of
His account, first in , then in a book and
finally in a blockbuster film, gave the Battle of Mogadishu the name by
which it's better known today: Black Hawk Down.
interviewed the men who survived the mission, including Shawn Nelson, an
M60 gunner who roped down to the scene from a helicopter.
"We immediately started taking fire from the ground. I could see
people below us with weapons maneuvering about," he told Bowden.
Nelson said that rangers did arrest their two targets, along with about 20 other Somalis who were in a house with them. But taking on so much fire in the busy streets, there was no way to get out fast.
longer they stayed, the intensity of the fire that the troops
encountered increased, including the fire directed at the helicopters
overhead," Bowden says.
About 40 minutes into the mission, one
of the Black Hawk helicopters circling overheard was hit by a
rocket-propelled grenade, spun out of control and crashed. Not long
after, a second Black Hawk was shot down. More men were sent in to
secure the crash sites and get the soldiers out. But the rescue team
itself got pinned down.
"I said a little prayer," says Spc.
Phil Lepre, who was on that rescue convoy, "took off my helmet, looked
at my daughter's picture, I said, 'Babe, I hope you have a wonderful
The 15-hour battle that ensued left 18 Americans dead
and 73 injured. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Somalis were killed.
U.S. Army pilot Mike Durant was captured and held by Somali militants
for 11 days.
back in America, the same news networks that broadcast the start of the
peaceful humanitarian mission less than a year earlier now ran horrific
footage of Aidid supporters desecrating the corpses of U.S. soldiers.
All of this intensified the pressure on then-President Clinton to get U.S. troops out of the country.
had gotten to a point ... where we kind of thought that we could
intervene militarily without getting hurt, without our soldiers getting
killed. The incident that I call Black Hawk Down certainly disabused us
of that," Bowden tells Arun Rath, host of All Things Considered.
the Battle of Mogadishu, Clinton said that it was a mistake for the
United States to play the role of police officer in Somalia. He
announced a six-month plan to remove U.S. troops from the country.
The battle likely caused "an excessive concern [to] avoid risking
American forces on the ground" during the Clinton administration, Bowden
says. And to an extent, that calculation continues to play a role in
foreign policy decisions, he says, even through the wars in Iraq and
The incident also had an impact on extremists, who
could take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal. The lawlessness that
followed the American exit created a recruiting ground for terrorist
"They are by definition extremists, so they lack
a large degree of popular support. They can only succeed in areas where
they can impose they're rule," Bowden says. Plus, four years after the
battle, the only schools open in Mogadishu were those run by Islamists.
we, by withdrawing from Somalia, left a lawless region ripe for
al-Qaida and gave at least a whole generation of Somalis over to these
Islamist fundamentalists to be educated and groomed," Bowden says.
When the U.S. announced its withdrawal, it also gave Osama bin Laden a narrative to latch onto.
message was, 'Well, we can defeat this great power because they're not
used to hardship and tragedy, so if we can inflict that they'll
retreat,' " Bowden says. That message was aimed at those who might have
previously been deterred by the United States' power.
If It Happened Again
Since 1993, there have been significant advances to America's special operations.
ability to gather intelligence to find people, to observe them from a
distance with the addition of a fleet of drones that we now have flying
is vastly improved," Bowden says. "And we also have special operators
who — after Iraq and Afghanistan — who have had more experience
conducting the kind of raid that took place back in 1993 than any force
like it in the history of the world."
If conducted today, the
Mogadishu raid would have been done more efficiently, Bowden suspects.
He says there also would be better intelligence about the risks ahead of
time. But that's not to say there wouldn't be hiccups.
men who conducted that raid [in '93] were extremely professional, and
they didn't do anything wrong," he says. "The fact is that when you go
into combat, it's very not only possible but very likely that ...
unanticipated things will happen and you'll end up in a much bigger
fight than you would prefer."