Independent journalists and non-UN aid workers had already done enough to discredit the approach taken under Operation Restore Hope and so were treated by the US-UN as “the enemy”. Throughout Somalia’s “peacekeeping war”, independent journalists were never allowed to see or photograph any US casualty, though had free access to killed Pakistani, Moroccan, Italian and Nigerian dead peacekeepers. The US again making their rules up as they went along.
Clinton’s authorised Operation Gothic Serpent began simply enough on Sunday afternoon, 3rd October 1993. Task Force Rangers and Delta had received accurate intelligence that Aidid’s top military cadre and possibly Aidid also, would be meeting near the Olympic Hotel. This was the seventh attempt to knock out Aidid’s command structure. The intended plan was Delta forces would heli in, rope down to roof and storm the building. Task Force Rangers were to create a safe perimeter. Then a ground convoy would collect troops and prisoners, and return to base. Like all previous attempted operations, it would be over in one hour.
Reconnaissance helis watched the “Somali agent” give the pre-arranged signal “stopping his car, leaving driver’s door open and lifting the bonnet”, closing it and driving on, therein identifying the exact militia meeting location. Minutes before Delta were to lift off, the Somali agent radioed back confessing he was too afraid to stop at the correct meeting place. He was ordered to return. Maps were then amended to correct this mistake and the 7th mission began.
However, Aidid’s militia was primed and ready. A latter US investigation found the militia were sent advance warning by locals, avoiding using phones providing a footprint near the airport beating empty oil drums, thereafter the “bush telegraph word of mouth”. Aidid also stated there was no formal warning just his ability to marshal and coordinate firepower quickly. Apocryphal or not, Delta reported when hovering over the target area in Wardigley, instead of fleeing as before, Somalis converged below them receiving immediate incoming fire.
Aidid’s Habr Gedir clan had stockpiled weapons [including hundreds of RPGs] and ammunition previously moved from weapons cantonment sites since May. Militia commanders also confirmed later they had figured out basic Delta tactics. Aidid’s Interior Minister Qaybdiid also verified this stating, “It was very easy to discover the US way of working. If you use one tactic twice you should not use it a third time, and the US had basically done the same thing six times previously”.
In Somalia there would be little deviation from the template. Normally the danger of firing RPGs into the sky is the backblast. However, militia had received instructions from the Mujahideen, once trained by the US and UK to shoot down Soviet helicopters. The instructors had entered via Sudan and taught Somalis how to rig RGPs with a timing device so that a direct hit wasn’t needed. They were taught the tail rotor was the heli’s Achilles heel, so Somalis had also dug holes in the dirt streets to absorb the backblast.
Within 20 minutes, roads were sealed and Aidid, located further East, relocated away to a safer area. Interior Minister Qaybdiid said, “It was a surprise to us; we couldn’t believe they thought they could come in easily and drive away safely.” But that was the US assumption, time and time again. The US plan was requiring quick insertion and exit before Somalis could seal them off. Unlike previous raids, this was in Habr Gedir home territory in Mogadishu with its confusing maze of narrow rough streets and similar housing structures and where the number of Somali fighters was limitless. And it was broad daylight.
Following 12th July “Black Monday”, Aidid confirmed his strategy that in every district under his control, people had instructions that any further US-UN missions, they should be encircled immediately and to keep a consistent heavy crossfire so no exit by helicopter was possible. Via the “bush telegraph” re the battle in Wardigley, Somalis of all tribes moved en masse to join in the battle with any weapon to hand or they could find.
Regardless of Aidid’s “preparations”, within 15 minutes of landing the Delta team had conducted its job arresting 24 people including two of Aidid’s senior aides and were ready to extract. When the evacuation convoy arrived, they received a flash message that changed the ultimate US/UN involvement in Somalia – helicopter down.
As the Task Force Rangers split up [perimeter protection and thereafter convoy evacuation]. A second helicopter was shot down crashing half a mile away. Compounding US troubles a lightly armoured rescue convoy despatched from the airport was repeatedly ambushed and forced to retreat. The rescue convoy was ordered to the rescue, first to go to the first crash site, extract the Rangers then head to the second crash site. On the ground, US troops were barraged with a huge disorienting volume of small arms and RPG fire. Every street looked the same and with helicopter delay in relaying directions “aka turn left or turn right”, the convoy became totally lost in the warrens. Casualties mounted. Three Somali prisoners died in the crossfire.
But it wasn’t just the US who adopted no-holds barred fight lengthened casualty lists. Confirmed by Interior Minister Qaybdiid, “The problem also was the Somalis themselves, everybody wanted and tried to attack. They came this way they went that way. If people had left it to the Habr Gedir militia it would have been no problem.
Somalis were angry. Every family in Mogadishu, in fact, had its own arsenal, from pistols up to 106mm anti-tank cannon, most buried underground. An additional reason for more Somalis, regardless of clan joining in, was in the preceding weeks, US mortar crews were witnessed by Somalis firing indiscriminately from the UN compound in daylight. One shell killing a family of eight at prayer, others wounded 34 people in a hospital. So when the one hour raid turned into a 15-hour free for all, gunmen from across the city came to have a crack at the US.
Because of rescue convoy delays getting to the second crash site, the basis for “Blackhawk Down” played out, with co-pilot Michael Durant, already superficially injured, stripped, beaten and taken hostage, to be used as a Somali pawn in the US policy reversal. The two US dead from this site would be mutilated and dragged through the streets as trophies.
In the growing darkness at the first heli crash site where Task Force Rangers were struggling to extract the body of pilot Cliff Woolcott from the wreckage, seven of every ten soldiers were injured. Aside disdaining ad hoc Somali tactics, the US completely underestimated the number of RPGs in Mogadishu, with the bombardment continuing all night.
Task Force Rangers and Delta squad took shelter in four houses near the first crash site. They found two dozen women and children inside and locked them in the back rooms. Though US officers argued the Somalis were not hostages, Somalis assert that such captives was the only reason Aidid’s militia did not demolish the premises.
Aidid’s concerns were larger than saving Somali lives. Having inflicted a heavy defeat on the US [with Somalis taking hundreds of casualties themselves], to slaughter the survivors might invite extreme retaliation. At that time Aidid did have at least one US captured alive. As dawn broke, Aidid ordered a window of an escape corridor but that would be harassed on the way back to the base.
Past midnight, a 70-vehicle convoy of Pakistani and Malay armoured vehicles, carrying US troops, finally reached the Task Force Rangers. The convoy was delayed because the Delta “snatch mission” was kept secret, even from top UN [US] commanders, for fear of alerting Somali informants.
The secrecy decision was a fatal miscalculation, but the result of an all-American mistake would be turned by US politicians into a UN faux pas, “One more excuse never to trust the UN again.”
While Somali casualties were very high and the revenge fever still burning bright, the Habr Gedir militia put together a plan to literally overrun the UN compound that night [4th October], though this never happened those ready to participate numbered around 20,000.
Few independent journalists had remained. Those that did had not lost sight of the 12th July Black Monday attack on Qaybdiid’s house when Somalis turned on the journalists, killing four. However, they did venture out with their guards. Without images of desecrated US soldiers being paraded through the streets by jubilant Somalis, Americans back home would never have found out their country was at war.
© AW Kamau 2023