Black Hawk Down: the Baghdad sequel?

Harun Hassan
2 April 2003

As the American troops move closer to Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld says that only one thing can halt the fighting – the surrender of Saddam Hussein. But the chances of this happening are ‘highly unlikely’. At this stage, there are two options open for the Americans and their British allies in their attempt to oust Saddam and his regime.

First, launch a fierce street-by-street campaign until the target is either killed or captured. With a city of at least 5 million people, this would be catastrophic. Second, surround the city and then conduct focused, intelligence-led raids on Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants. This would cost less but require time and patience.

If the Americans choose the second option, it will be reminiscent of what happened in the little known East African country of Somalia in 1993, when a multi-skilled US force failed to capture or kill an anti-American local warlord.

"Welcome to Mogadishu" - photo by Raffaele Ciriello

The Americans wanted to test how their fairly recent (but already controversial) “new world order” policy might work against General Mohamed Farah Aidid, who in turn wanted to play hide-and-seek with the elite US troops in the dusty streets of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

The US forces abandoned their chase of Aidid after an infamous incident on 3 October 1993, which resulted in the death of eighteen US soldiers, since dramatised in the Black Hawk Down blockbuster movie. Saddam Hussein may well emulate General Aidid in order to elude the US. In addition, the Iraqi leader has the benefit of a city fifteen times the size of Mogadishu, and far more sophisticated military hardware.

The pursuit of Aidid: dead or alive

Mohamed Farah Aidid had become an American target when US troops, sent in by George Bush senior in late 1992 initially to protect humanitarian relief convoys, were (under Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton) given a bigger role – to break the political deadlock in the country.

A majority of Somalis welcomed this move. But Aidid, who controlled eleven out of the eighteen Somali regions, thought the Americans were blocking his way to becoming Somalia’s president. Aidid had never wanted the American intervention in the first place. He reluctantly signed a letter of agreement endorsing intervention after heavy pressure from clan leaders to let the Americans feed the starving Somalis. This was “one of the rare occasions Aidid ever changed his mind,” according to a close aide.

Pakistani peace-keeping forces posted in Somalia

Aidid’s adversary, the head of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) was a retired admiral and now general, Jonathan Howe. Howe, who had the command of 22,000 UN troops (mostly Americans and Pakistanis) did not like Aidid’s stubbornness. When Aidid failed to endorse the new role of the mission, US marines and Pakistanis stormed into his radio station, which was broadcasting propaganda against the foreigners. As a result of the raid, Aidid’s militias killed twenty-four Pakistanis on 5 June 1993.

The UN Security Council hesitantly ordered the arrest and prosecution of those responsible. Howe held Aidid himself responsible for the attack and put a $25,000 reward on his head; Aidid was to be taken dead or alive.

Aidid’s cat-and-mouse game

The hunt began. President Clinton sent 400 specially trained US forces known as Delta Force to join the hunt, along with high-tech spy planes and AC-130 bombers to smoke out Aidid, who, in the eyes of Americans, deserved to be the cellmate of that other notorious general snatched by US forces, Panama’s deposed president, Manuel Noriega.

This was a nightmare for Aidid. He had only half of the city to hide in, as the other half was controlled by his archrival, Ali Mahdi, who would have been happy to deliver him to the Americans. Aidid’s faction, the Somali National Alliance, also had no air power. Their military hardware consisted of no more than AK-47 and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) (the latter relatively primitive but effective as proven when they successfully downed five US Black Hawk helicopters).

To survive, General Aidid took three urgent measures. First, he decided not to defend a fixed position in the city. He melted into the crowds merging with the civilian population. Second, he severed all contacts with non-essential associates of his faction, so that he could keep his movements secret. Third, he changed his hideouts frequently. (It was clear to Aidid that his rivals and enemies, who regarded him as a power maniac, were working with the Americans as informers. None of the refuges he chose were concrete, or had handsome compounds. According to someone who tracked Aidid’s whereabouts during the four-month hunt, “an attractive building would have tempted the US to make assumptions and attack.” A small, unassuming flat was his favourite shelter).

In case of attack, a unit of about 25-30 bodyguards armed with anti-aircraft missiles, bazookas and heavy machineguns was always deployed in three to four houses surrounding the temporary hiding-place of their boss. Every house accommodating Aidid and his bodyguards had to be owned by a “very trusted sympathiser”.

Aidid moved frequently. The relocations mostly took place at night. Some of the bodyguards would be deployed before and after his arrival in order to keep the situation as normal. Only two to three militias used to ride with him in a small car. Sometimes, the general preferred walking, but only after changing his dressing style. He adopted unremarkable civilian attire; a sarong, a colourless shirt, a scarf wrapped around his body like a Muslim scholar, a walking stick.

On occasion, the general received “important” individuals and foreign journalists after tough security measures were conducted. No one was allowed to take a car when meeting him. Usually, one of his “very trusted sympathisers” would guide visitors along narrow, meandering paths; some were blindfolded.

The Americans were desperate either to capture or kill General Aidid. They even tried to link him with al-Qaida (though this of course was a full eight years before bin Laden’s organisation became infamous following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon), after several well-planned attacks claimed the lives of American soldiers. But if any Somali person is secular, it was Aidid. He was a sworn enemy of religious fundamentalism, just like Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps the only evidence the Americans had for their allegation was that Osama bin Laden had once praised the heroism of the Somalis against the “infidel” Americans. In fact, the US military spokesman, Major David Stockwell, named Sudan as a possible supplier of weapons to Aidid’s group. Ironically, Sudan had hosted bin Laden after the Saudi government stripped him from his citizenship.

Saddam in Aidid’s shadow

The wreckage of one of the US Blackhawk helicopter downed with rocket-propelled-grenades RPG by somali militias during clashes around the Olympic Hotel in October 1993. Photo by Raffaele Ciriello

Some parallels can already be drawn between the conflicts in Somalia and Iraq. During the hunt, it became clear that the Somali militiamen were strong on the ground, while the US forces had total control of the air. In all, the US Delta forces made five major raids in an attempt to capture or kill General Aidid. All of them failed. The last took place on 3 October 1993, when 150 Delta forces landed in a neighbourhood at the heart of Aidid’s militia-controlled area, after receiving a tip-off that the target was about to attend a meeting with his advisers. Aidid survived, but over 500 Somalis and 18 Americans died in the battle. A week later, President Clinton halted the hunt and announced the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia within six months.

General Aidid went on to become President on 15 June 1995. A year later, he clashed with his main adviser and financier, Osman Ali Atto. On August 1996, Aidid was fatally injured in the streets of Mogadishu while leading his militias. He died six days later.

In Somalia, as in Iraq, the Americans thought Aidid’s people would hand him over. Aidid was extremely unpopular among Somalis, the latter closed ranks around him when the Americans started hunting him down. If the American people now agree with Donald Rumsfeld that in Iraq “the conflict is closer to the beginning than the end”, then America will pay any price right now for Saddam, dead or alive. They know that they must do so before the Iraqi people start forgetting what he has done to them and turn their anger against the “invaders”.

One major factor in Somalia, which could be the key in Iraq, is the media. The US intervened in Somalia after pictures of starving children had been shown on the screens, and in the end, withdrew because the American public could no longer stand watching the pictures of their Yankees being dragged in dusty streets. Black Hawk Down was a Hollywood attempt to wring the semblance of a jingoistic ‘victory’ from what was clearly an embarrassing defeat. Keep your eye on the TV, because this conflict will, in all probability, produce Black Hawk Down – the sequel.

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