Mogadishu: Prelude to the War on Terror

by Jonathan Deemer
Published with Permission

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The U.S. intervention in the Somalia humanitarian crisis and the Battle of Mogadishu provided valuable insight into the changing nature of warfare and exposed significant weaknesses in U.S. command structure and and inter-unit partnering which would become evident and prove valuable in the War on Terror.


U.S. troops were first sent to Somalia as part of a 1992 United Nations humanitarian mission authorized by President George H. W. Bush to maintain order so that food and water could be provided for civilians. In June of 1993, warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s militia, Somali National Alliance, attacked and mutilated a UN-affiliated Pakistani peacekeeping force. In response, the UN representative in Somalia ordered his arrest, triggering a months-long search for Aidid’s whereabouts. In early October, the location of two of Aidid’s top lieutenants was discovered and, on the afternoon of October 3, 1993, a force of twelve vehicles, 19 aircraft, and 160 personnel moved on a residence in central Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

Shortly after arriving on target, 1st SFOD-D operators apprehended 24 individuals, including both lieutenants. Simultaneously, four chalks of Rangers deployed and secured a perimeter around the target building as the vehicles arrived to transport the high value targets (HVTs). At this point, large crowds of Somalis amassed around the target building and armed militiamen hit one of the U.S. vehicles with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), wounding 27 U.S. service members. As the convoy prepares to leave, three trucks depart with a wounded Ranger who fell while fast-roping along with casualties from the RPG attack. Super 6-1, a UH-60 Black Hawk, carrying two Delta Force snipers is hit by an RPG and crashes five blocks northeast of the target residence while providing overwatch, prompting throngs of armed militiamen to race to the crash site. Shortly thereafter, the convoy departs the target residence carrying the HVTs as Super 6-4 replaces Super 6-1 circling the city. 15 minutes later, Super 6-4 is also struck by an RPG and crashes. Because of wrong turns, poor communication, and faulty intelligence, rescue convoys are dispatched and become stranded, suffer more and more casualties, and fail to regroup at a Pakistani-secured soccer stadium until 0630 on the morning of October 4. Once the dust settles, 19 Americans are killed, 73 are injured, and 1 is captured.


There are three main takeaways from the Battle of Mogadishu that are relevant to U.S. foreign policy and had implications for the nature and scope of U.S. military involvement in the following decades.
1) Superior technology does not guarantee victory
2) After Mogadishu, victory looked different
3) In multilateral engagements, clear command and control is imperative

1) Superior technology does not guarantee victory

The idea that U.S. military technology would be outmatched by that of Somali warlords was laughable and, even if it was raised in a serious discussion among U.S. leadership at the time, would have been immediately dismissed. Yet, that is exactly what happened. Aidid’s preferred methods of communication were couriers and dated, weak walkie-talkies which could not be detected by advanced U.S. equipment. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Army’s Intelligence Support Activity was diverted from the search for Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar in support of the hunt for Aidid. In short, the U.S. deployed an extensive number of state of the art technological assets only for them to be thwarted by improvisation driven by technological backwardness and deficiency.

One could say this situation was similarly ironic to a 2001 picture of U.S. troops, outfitted with world-class equipment and technology, being outmatched by men wearing turbans and flip flops in the White Mountains during the Battle of Tora Bora. Even in Vietnam, insurgent-type warfighters were supplied with Soviet technology which was at least reasonably comparable to American equipment. Indeed, the disparity in technological assets (and the ensuing unanticipated results) displayed in Mogadishu would be seen again and again in the first years of the War on Terror with similar results. The crude technological innovation made accidentally successful by Aidid’s militias would be intentionally employed by groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the coming decades, manifesting itself in the widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and similar technologies.

2) After Mogadishu, victory looked different

By all objective measurements, U.S. forces were wildly successful in the Battle of Mogadishu. There were an estimated 500-1,000 Somali casualties compared to 19 U.S.servicemembers killed. The raid was successful—Aidid’s lieutenants, along with 21 others, were taken from the heart of enemy territory and transported to base where actionable intelligence was extracted. Even the Somalis considered the Battle to be an American victory. U.S. intelligence assets on the ground in Somalia reported that many Aidid allies had fled the country fearing U.S. retribution and powerful families whose influence Aidid relied upon withdrew their support. Some allied warlords even went so far as to communicate to U.S. forces and diplomatic teams their willingness to reject Aidid’s leadership or replace him altogether.

And yet, notwithstanding these objective measures, the reaction in the United States was harsh and had far-reaching consequences. Calls from the Congress for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia came nearly immediately. President Clinton was quoted asking administration officials, “How did this happen?” The fact that Somali militiamen experienced 26-to-53 times as many deaths compared to U.S. forces was offset by the expectation that the U.S. military was, simply put, better. Expectations were not tailored to fit the situation at hand and, as a result, “We wound up…giving a military victory to Aidid that Aidid did not win on the third day of October,” according to Army Major General Thomas Montgomery. Moreover, there were foreign policy implications. Perhaps the best example of American timidity after Mogadishu is the U.S. refusal to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. So regardless of the fact that the Battle of Mogadishu was operationally successful for U.S. forces, it simultaneously displayed a lack of victory where it mattered—the minds of U.S. leadership and the American public. Mogadishu forecasted operational or tactical success ending in defeat that would come to be a chronic phenomenon in the War on Terror.

3) In both multilateral and unilateral engagements, clear command and control is imperative

The Battle of Mogadishu made clear the need for simple, streamlined, and efficient command and control structure, both internally and dealing with allies. Due to the nature of the conflict in Somalia (peacekeeping mission turned armed conflict), some members of the UN peacekeeping force sought approval from their respective home governments before following UN orders. In one case, this led to an Italian commander attempting to negotiate directly with Aidid even as troops under his command were actively involved in the UN’s search efforts. When UN authorities requested his removal, the motion fizzled and the commander was allowed to remain with no repercussions. Obviously, this specific flaw is in UN command and control structure, but it is still useful insofar as it informs U.S. commanders of the proper protocols and procedures that must be insured against before participating in multilateral military engagements. In fact, today it is rare to find U.S. military engagement on a unilateral basis. Whether classified under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the U.S. military is often highly integrated with its allies, and Mogadishu necessarily informed current U.S. best practices in engaging with its allies.

Internal command and control during the Battle of Mogadishu lacked coherent organization as well. For example, U.S. Forces Somalia were considered “leased” forces under the control of the UN itself, while the assault and quick reaction forces used to conduct operations were under the control of the U.S. Central Command. More complicated still, Task Force Ranger, the force deployed to abduct Aidid’s lieutenants, had its own operational command structure. Such inconsistencies and unnecessary complications resulted in missteps directly responsible for the loss of American lives. For example, once 1st SFOD-D operators had successfully abducted Aidid’s lieutenants and others, the convoy to transport them back to base was delayed outside the target building while awaiting confirmation through the “proper” communication channels, leaving the entire convoy exposed for an extended period of time for no justifiable reason whatsoever.


The Battle of Mogadishu was effectively a case study in the changing nature of warfare and its effects on U.S. warfighting capabilities. Over the course of two days, weaknesses of the U.S. were exposed, both operationally and organizationally, and the effects on American foreign policy could be seen for the remainder of President Clinton’s time in office. Mogadishu marked a turning point in U.S. military engagement worldwide, and it accurately forecasted challenges the U.S. military would face in the War on Terror. Though 19 brave Americans were killed, their sacrifices were not in vain. Their sacrifices, and the lessons learned from the Battle of Mogadishu, prepared the United States for its now nearly 20-year old War on Terror and potentially saved far more U.S. service members from meeting a similar fate for lack of experience.

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