A daring mission to snatch rebel leaders from the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia goes disastrously wrong when two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters are shot down.
In October 1993, a contingent of 160 U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators—some of America’s most elite, highly-trained and skilled military forces—ventured in helicopters and armed vehicles into the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia, on a mission to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and other leaders of his militia. But the raid went disastrously wrong. Two U.S. helicopters were shot down, and a lengthy urban battle ensued in which in which 18 Americans were killed and 73 wounded, and helicopter pilot Michael Durant was seized by an angry mob. Hundreds of Somalis lost their lives as well.
It's not easy to make sense of the Battle of Mogadishu, and not just because of the fog of war. Here's some historical background that will help you to understand the complex combination of factors that made Somalia into such a violent, dangerous place on that fateful day.
Somalia, a Texas-sized nation of 10.6 million along the eastern horn of Africa, for a long time has been one of the world’s most impoverished, chaotic, and violent places. It is a hot, dry place with few natural resources except for pastureland, and for much of Somalia’s history, its people were mostly nomadic clans who raised cattle. But Somalia’s strategic location along the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean was coveted by bigger, stronger countries such as France, Britain and Italy, and it was under foreign domination from the mid-1880s until finally gaining independence in 1960. But nine years after that, a strongman named Muhammad Siad Barre took power in a coup, and his military regime nationalized much of Somalia’s meager economy in an effort to establish what he called “scientific socialism.” But that failed experiment—coupled with starvation caused by punishing droughts and an ill-conceived war with neighboring Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s—only made Somalia weaker and poorer.
U.S. troops were sent to Somalia in 1992 by then-President George H.W. Bush, as part of a United Nations humanitarian operation that also included 13,000 soldiers from other nations. The original purpose was restore enough order so that starving Somalis could be fed. According to a 1995 Congressional investigation, however, the U.S. forces increasingly bore the brunt of taking on the violent warlords and their militias, who threatened the UN’s efforts. After Aidid’s militia ambushed Pakistani peacekeeping forces in June 1993, the UN representative in Somalia, Jonathan Howe, ordered Aidid’s arrest. The job of capturing Aidid and his key lieutenants fell to U.S. forces, and led to the ill-fated assault in October 1993.
Watch: Surviving Black Hawk DownBlack Hawk pilot Mike Durant and U.S. Rangers Randy Ramaglia and Keni Thomas share their thoughts on what it takes to survive combat.
When the U.S. forces arrived at their target, two of Aidid's top lieutenants were captured. Just when the team thought the raid was wrapping up, a militiaman armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher managed to shoot down one of the U.S. force’s Black Hawk helicopters, a Black Hawk known as Super 6-1. The pilot and co-pilot were killed, and five soldiers were injured, including a Delta sniper who later died from his wounds. A rescue force managed to help the survivors escape, but shortly afterward, a second Black Hawk was shot down as well. Three crew members were killed, but pilot Michael Durant, who suffered a broken back and leg, survived and was taken prisoner.
"The last two or three seconds of that event has been wiped from my memory, which is probably a blessing as I don’t think that you want to remember the moment where you thought you’d died." -Mike Durant
Durant endured mistreatment from his captors, who eventually released him 11 days later, after negotiations led by U.S. diplomat Robert Oakley.
The disaster quickly had repercussions. Several days later, President Bill Clinton announced that all U.S. troops would leave Somalia within six months. In 1995, the UN mission in Somalia ended in failure. As for the Somali warlord Aidid, any satisfaction that he got from vanquishing the Americans was short-lived. Less than three years later, he reportedly died of a heart attack after surgery for gunshot wounds.
Today, 23 years after the operation in Mogadishu, Somalia still is a troubled place. Though a new, internationally-backed government was installed in 2012, the impoverished nation faces a new threat from Al-Shabab, a terror group linked to Al-Qaeda.