The disastrous US military operation which resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu (now known as ‘Black Hawk Down’) was part of a wider attempt by the UN to restore peace and stability to the war torn Somalia. Whilst the operation was technically a success, the overall peacekeeping mission proved to be bloody and inconclusive. Somalia remains a country wracked by ongoing humanitarian crises and armed military conflict.
Here are 10 facts about one of the most infamous episodes in recent US military history.
1. Somalia was in the midst of a bloody civil war at the start of the 1990s
Somalia began to experience political unrest in the late 1980s as people began to resist the military junta that had been controlling the country. In 1991, the government was overthrown, leaving a power vacuum.
Law and order collapsed and the UN (both military and peacekeeping forces) arrived in 1992. Many of those vying for power saw the arrival of the UN as a challenge to their hegemony.
2. It was part of Operation Gothic Serpent
In 1992, President George H. W. Bush decided to involve the US military with UN peacekeeping forces in an attempt to restore order in Somalia. His successor, President Clinton, took over in 1993.
Many Somalis disliked foreign intervention (including active resistance on the ground) and faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid who later declared himself president was strongly anti-American. Operation Gothic Serpent was organised to capture Aidid, ostensibly because he had attacked UN forces.
3. The aim was to seize 2 high-profile military leaders
The American military task force Ranger was dispatched to capture 2 of Aidid’s leading generals, Omar Salad Elmim and Mohamed Hassan Awale. The plan was to have troops stationed on the ground in Mogadishu, securing it from the ground, whilst four rangers would fast-rope down from helicopters to secure the building they were in.
4. US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in the attempt
The ground convoys ran into road blocks and protests from the citizens of Mogadishu, setting the mission off to an inauspicious start. Around 16:20, Super 61, became the first of 2 Black Hawk helicopters to be shot down that day by an RPG-7: both pilots and two other crew members were killed. A combat search and rescue team was immediately sent to help.
Less than 20 minutes later, the second Black Hawk helicopter, Super 64, was shot down: by this point, most of the assault team were at the first crash site, helping with the rescue operation for Super 61.
5. Fighting occurred on the streets of Mogadishu
Aidid’s militia reacted with force to the US’s attempts to seize two of their group. They overran the crash site after a heavy fire from both sides and most of the American personnel were killed, excluding Michael Durant, who was captured and taken as a prisoner by Aided.
Fighting continued at both crash sites and across wider Mogadishu until the early hours of the following day, when US and UN soldiers were evacuated by the UN to its base by an armoured convoy.
6. Several thousands Somalis were killed in the battle
It’s thought several thousands Somalis were killed during the operation although the precise numbers are unclear: the area in which the majority of the fighting took place was densely populated and so casualties included large numbers of civilians as well as militia. 19 US soldiers were killed in action, with a further 73 wounded.
7. The mission was technically a success
Although the Americans did manage to capture Omar Salad Elmim and Mohamed Hassan Awale, it’s seen as something of a pyrrhic victory due to the excessive loss of life and disastrous shooting down of two military helicopters.
The US Secretary of Defense, Leslie Aspin, stepped down in February 1994, shouldering much of the blame for events in Mogadishu after he refused tanks and armoured vehicles to be used on the mission. US forces fully withdrew from Somalia by April 1994.
8. The crew were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour
Delta snipers, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour for their actions in holding off Somali forces and defending the crash site. They were the first American soldiers to receive it since the Vietnam War.
9. The incident remains one of the highest profile US military interventions in Africa
Whilst America has, and continues to have, interests and influence in Africa, it has largely kept to the shadows, limiting overt military presence and interventions across the continent.
The failure to achieve anything in Somalia (the country is still unstable and many consider the civil war to be ongoing) and extremely hostile reaction their attempts to intervene garnered seriously limited America’s ability to justify further interventions.
Many consider the legacy of the Black Hawk Down incident to have been one of the key reasons the US did not intervene during the Rwandan genocide.
10. The incident was immortalised in a book and film
Journalist Mark Bowden published his book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War in 1999, following years of painstaking research, including combing US Army records, interviewing those on both sides of the event and reviewing all available material. Much of the book’s material was serialised in Bowden’s paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, before it was turned into a full length non-fiction book.
The book was later adapted into Ridley Scott’s famous Black Hawk Down movie, which was released in 2001 to mixed reception. Many considered the film to be deeply factually inaccurate as well as problematic in its depiction of Somalis.