Divided between British and Italian colonial empires in the 19th century, Somalia was never really conquered. Highly individualistic, with a tradition of feuding clans, Somalis make fearsome warriors. Gaining independence in 1960, Somalia became a Marxist dictatorship, strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea – and quickly became a target of Cold War competition between the Soviets and the West. Eventually, civil war erupted in 1991 as the central government collapsed and the army disbanded.
Rise of the Warlords
In traditional Somali society, authority resided with clan elders, who maintained traditions and resolved conflicts. As that traditional society disintegrated, power shifted to younger “warlords” – ambitious men, often with Western or Soviet education, military training, and “modern” managerial skills. The proliferation of cheap automatic weapons meant that a child with an AK-47 now had as much killing power as a whole village of traditional warriors. In 1993, Somali fighters in Mogadishu were skilled warriors with years of combat experience. A favored weapon of the warlords was the “technical” – a pickup truck mounting a heavy machine gun or recoilless rifle.
As famine stalked the land, Somalia broke up into a patchwork of warlord enclaves. International pressure to “do something” grew intense. Failed states make diplomats – especially United Nations officials – nervous, because they know how contagious anarchy can be on a continent of fragile nations. By one estimate, as much as 80 percent of the famine relief supplies shipped into Somalia was being stolen by armed gangs. In July 1992, the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I) sent in a handful of peacekeepers. They proved ineffectual, as the warlords Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Muhammad battled for control of the seaside capital of Mogadishu.
“It was weird watching this slow, spinning turn,” Thomas said, “and the Black Hawk crashed off in the neighborhood, as if you were standing in your own neighborhood and watched him go over the trees somewhere.”
The failed UNOSOM I was followed in December 1992 by Unified Task Force (UNITAF), an American-led intervention with troops from many other nations. As the “strongest tribe” in the city, UN peacekeepers had some success in securing delivery of humanitarian relief, but civil war festered. In March 1993, UN Security Council Resolution 814 authorized continuation of the peacekeeping force as UNOSOM II, with an expanded mission: Disarm the warlords, restore law and order, and reestablish a Somali government. With 22,000 international troops and 8,000 civilian staff, UNOSOM II looked strong on paper. Commanded by a Turkish three-star general, with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Montgomery as his deputy, UNOSOM II included elements of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, a Pakistani brigade, and a Malaysian regiment.
Task Force Ranger to Somalia
On Aug. 22, 1993, Task Force (TF) Ranger deployed to Somalia in response to Aidid’s attacks against UNOSOM II forces. The mission was to locate and capture Aidid, who had gone underground after AC-130 air strikes and UN attacks. TF Ranger was commanded by Army Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, who had served much of his career in special operations. Although TF Ranger was formally outside the UNOSOM II chain of command, it coordinated operations closely with the peacekeepers. Based in a hangar at Mogadishu airport, TF Ranger was an elite strike force consisting of:
• B Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment
• C Squadron, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D)
• 16 helicopters and personnel of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR), including MH-60 Black Hawks and AH-6/MH-6 Little Birds
• Navy SEALs of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU)
• Air Force pararescuemen and combat controllers of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron
Going After Aidid
By becoming an enemy of the United Nations, and especially of the United States, Aidid’s prestige among Somalis soared. When U.S. authorities posted a $25,000 bounty for Aidid’s arrest on June 17, however, the trivial amount was viewed as a mortal insult, requiring a forceful response.
During the long summer, the conflict became an intricate dance of roadblocks and roadblock clearing, escalating to night raids and ambushes.
On Sept. 25, at around 0200 hours, Aidid’s militia, the Somali National Alliance (SNA), used RPG-7s – unguided weapons with a 200-meter effective range – to down a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, killing three Americans. It was an ominous development. TF Ranger successfully apprehended some of Aidid’s lieutenants on early raids, but the wily Somali eluded all attempts to track him down. To develop an effective human intelligence network in a place like Somalia takes years, even decades, but the American leadership wanted results right away. And the fact that the U.S. forces had been denied AC-130 gunships, armor, and artillery support did not help.
Black Hawks Downed
The afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, TF Ranger received intelligence that some of Aidid’s top leaders were scheduled to meet in a building near the Olympic Hotel. A team was rapidly assembled to mount a daylight helicopter assault on the target, with a follow-up ground convoy to reinforce the assault force and extract any prisoners. The code name for the operation was “Gothic Serpent.” In total, there were 19 helicopters, 12 vehicles, and 160 men being sent into the city.