What A Downed Black Hawk In Somalia Taught America

Oct 5, 2013
Originally published on October 8, 2013 9:44 am

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the deadliest firefight U.S. forces had faced since Vietnam.

The incident ultimately pushed the U.S. out of Somalia, leaving a safe haven for extremist groups.

It 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'

There 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 famine.

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 that day.

His account, first in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 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.

Bowden 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.

"The 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 life.' "

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.

Lasting Consequences

Meanwhile, 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.

"We 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.

After 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 Afghanistan.

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 organizations.

"They are by definition extremists, so they lack a large degree of popular support. They can only succeed in areas where they can impose their rule," Bowden says. Plus, four years after the battle, the only schools open in Mogadishu were those run by Islamists.

"So 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.

"His 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.

"Our 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.

"The 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."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the deadliest firefight U.S. forces faced since Vietnam. The incident changed the perception of America's role in the world for years to follow. That's our cover story - the battle of Mogadishu, and its lasting impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: There never was 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 to Somalia on a humanitarian mission. The goal: to get food to the victims of a raging civil war and manmade famine. But by the fall of 1993, the mission had expanded to one of restoring a government in Somalia. On Oct. 3rd, a special ops team was sent into Mogadishu, to arrest two top lieutenants of the warlord Mohammed Aidid, who controlled the city.

MARK BOWDEN: They estimated it would take 30 minutes to 45 minutes to conduct the raid, but things did not go well.

RATH: Mark Bowden reported on the events of that day. His account, first in "The Philadelphia Inquirer," 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. Bowden interviewed the men who survived the mission. Shawn Nelson was an M60 gunner who roped down to the scene from a helicopter.

SHAWN NELSON: We immediately started taking fire from the ground. I could see people below us with weapons, maneuvering about.

RATH: The rangers did arrest their two targets, along with about 20 other Somalis who were in the house. But in the busy streets, taking on so much fire, there was no way to get out fast.

NELSON: The longer they stayed, the intensity of the fire that the troops encountered increased, including the fire directed at the helicopters overhead.

RATH: About 40 minutes into the mission, one of the Black Hawk helicopters circling overhead was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, spun out of control, and crashed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO TRANSMISSION)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: We got a Black Hawk - Black Hawk down!

NELSON: With each mission that they undertook, they would encounter a more organized, a more rapidly assembled resistance force. And in addition, the Somalis were getting better at targeting Black Hawk helicopters.

RATH: Not long after, another RPG took down another Black Hawk. More men were sent in, to secure the crash sites and get the soldiers out . But the rescue team itself got pinned down. Spc. Phil Lepre was part of the team.

PHIL LEPRE: I said a little prayer, took off my helmet, looked at my daughter's picture, and I said: Babe, I hope you have a wonderful life.

RATH: The 15-hour battle that ensued left hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Somalis dead. Eighteen Americans died, 73 were injured, and one held captive for 11 days. In the chaos, the bodies of American soldiers were left behind. Somalis desecrated the corpses, dragging them through the streets of Mogadishu. That image was repeatedly played across networks that just a year earlier, showed American troops being welcomed by desperate Somalis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: My fellow Americans, today I want to talk with you about our nation's military involvement in Somalia.

RATH: Days later, President Bill Clinton announced a pullout of U.S. troops from Somalia.

BOWDEN: We had gotten to a point in 1992, '93, 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.

RATH: Coming up, we'll talk with Mark Bowden about the lasting effects of this battle on U.S. foreign policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu. The raid on Oct. 3, 1993 turned into the bloodiest firefight since Vietnam, when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot out of the sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLACK HAWK DOWN")

GLENN MORSHOWER: (as Matthews) He is hit. Wolcott's bird is hit.

RATH: The battle was immortalized in Mark Bowden's 1999 best-seller "Black Hawk Down," and in the 2001 film directed by Ridley Scott. After the bloody fight, President Bill Clinton said it was a mistake for the U.S. to play the role of police officer in Somalia. He announced a plan to remove U.S. troops from the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: All American troops will be out of Somalia no later than March the 31st, except for a few hundred support personnel in noncombat roles. If we take these steps, if we take the time to do the job right, I am convinced we will have lived up to the responsibilities of American leadership in the world.

RATH: I asked Mark Bowden how this battle, and the decision to pull out of Somalia, changed the standards for sending soldiers into crisis zones.

BOWDEN: There was an outcry from the Congress, and from the public, to withdraw American forces. After all, United States had intervened for purely humanitarian reasons. And most people found it hard to understand how a humanitarian mission could result in 18 American soldiers killed and, in fact, angry mobs of Somalis dragging dead American soldiers through the streets. So the decision to withdraw, and the remarks that the president made, certainly indicated to me that he had - and then that the country had really failed to anticipate the risks involved in deploying military forces there.

There probably was, as a reaction to this, an excessive concern for avoiding risking American forces on the ground. And that, to some extent - even after 9/11, even after Iraq and Afghanistan - has remained a very important part of the calculation.

RATH: And much has been made about the message that sent to America's enemies - or America's, even, prospective enemies - that at the time, in 1993, the idea that that somehow might have emboldened jihadists.

BOWDEN: It definitely created a narrative that Osama bin Laden fostered, that the United States lacked the will to get hurt, if need be, in protecting its interests; and that we may dispatch troops places but if a few American soldiers were killed, the United States would back out. And I think, you know, for propaganda purposes, he beat that drum in an effort to hearten and attract people to his own cause, people who might have been deterred by the power of the United States. His 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.

RATH: Can you draw any connection between the lawlessness we saw in Somalia after '93, and the rise of al-Shabab, the group we've seen most recently in that mall attack in Nairobi, in Kenya?

BOWDEN: Without question, we can. We know that al-Qaida in associated organizations thrive in lawless environments. They can only succeed in areas where they can impose their rule. The other thing is, you know, when I was in Mogadishu four years after this battle took place, there were no schools, except for those run by Islamist extremists. So 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.

RATH: You know, your recent book - "The Finish" - it's about the hunt and the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. And I'm really curious. Tactically, what has changed in the last 20 years about special operations? What are the big, dramatic things that you've noticed?

BOWDEN: Well, our special operations forces are much better today. Our 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. And we also have special operators who, after Iraq and Afghanistan, 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.

RATH: So how do you imagine, if that raid in Mogadishu were staged today, how would it be different - or would it even be staged?

BOWDEN: If we did undertake a raid like that, I think it would be done a lot more efficiently. I think that we would have generally better intelligence about the risk level involved. The men who conducted that raid were extremely professional, and they didn't do anything wrong. The fact is that when you go into combat, it's very - not only possible, but very likely that things, unanticipated things will happen; and you'll end up in a much bigger fight than you would prefer. As good as we were in Pakistan going after bin Laden, we were also very fortunate.

RATH: Kind of a broad question, but you've been following this closely now for 20 years, through various administrations. I'm wondering if you could compare President Obama with President Clinton, and how they've handled these sorts of military challenges.

BOWDEN: I have to say that the circumstances were entirely different...

RATH: Yeah.

BOWDEN: President Obama inherited two active wars. He inherited a - ongoing fight against al-Qaida, which the nation was fully behind. President Clinton was making decisions to use military force under circumstances that were unique in American history. Ordinarily, we deploy our military to defend our national interests and our country. In the case of Somalia, this is after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States is really the only superpower left in the world.

I think that because of the experiences our country has had over the past decade, when President Obama assumed office, we as a country had a much better understanding of what it meant to deploy military force. And again, he was deploying forces - he has been deploying forces in a war that has very strong support by most Americans, and by Congress.

RATH: Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down." His most recent book is "Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden." Mark, thank you so much.

BOWDEN: You're welcome, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.