A Wrong Turn In Somalia -- An Ill-Conceived Copter Raid Turned Many Somalis Against U.S. Forces

THE MISSION - a daylight raid to capture a Somali warlord's top assistants - should have been simple. But by the next morning, 18 U.S. soldiers and nearly 500 Somalis were dead. This series - running daily in The Seattle Times - is the first detailed public account of the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993.

At some point in the days immediately after the Battle of Mogadishu, Maj. Gen. William Garrison, commander of Task Force Ranger, sat down and wrote out in his precise, printed script an unusual letter.

It was addressed to the House National Security Committee, and it began, "Please show this to President Clinton and (Defense) Secretary (Les) Aspin."

All of America was outraged by what had happened in Somalia. Congress and the media were casting about to assign blame for the 18 American soldiers killed and 73 wounded, and for the hundreds of Somali dead. What had gone wrong? Hadn't America gone to Somalia to feed starving people? What had turned this desperate, small African nation against America so that Somalis would mutilate the bodies of U.S. soldiers and drag their remains through the streets?

Military critics had a lot to work with. Why were American soldiers on foot in Mogadishu with no armored vehicles? How did such a small force end up stranded in a hostile city? Where was the overwhelming firepower from the air that so decisively carried the day in the Persian Gulf War?

Aspin had already acknowledged that he had made a bad call when he turned down Task Force Ranger's requests for Bradley Fighting Vehicles and the AC-130 gunship, a propeller-driven aircraft that circles a battlefield and provides devastatingly accurate fire. The defense secretary resigned two months later.

Garrison titled his letter "Operation on 3/4 Oct. '93 in Mog" and wrote 13 brief, numbered paragraphs. In those paragraphs he did something few people in leadership do nowadays. He took the blame.

"I. The authority, responsibility and accountability for the Op rests here in Mog with the TF Ranger commander, not in Washington."

But the blame for what happened - if blame is the right word, since, as Garrison pointedly noted, "The mission was a success" - went far beyond the decisions regarding Task Force Ranger. The story of how the forces of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid came to be at war with America begins on July 12, 1993, almost three months before the climactic battle.

A complex web Matthew Bryden, a Canadian working with a relief organization in Mogadishu, heard helicopters that morning and didn't think anything of it. Helicopters were always buzzing low over Mogadishu, especially since the United Nations had announced its intent to arrest Aidid.

Aidid's forces had been in a bloody battle with U.N. forces on June 5, and 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. Some were skinned. With the blessing of the United States, the United Nations called for the arrest of those responsible. Weeks later, blame would formally be placed on Aidid, leader of the Habr Gidr clan. Ever since, U.N. troops had been hunting Aidid. Clashes had worsened.

After four years working in Somalia for charities, Bryden knew the country better than most Westerners there. He regarded the attempt to arrest Aidid as a mistake. A former military officer himself, he felt some pity for those ordered to find the former Somali general.

Mogadishu was a bewilderingly complex web of interlocking family and kin. It was protected not by any formal army or battlements, but by hordes of gunmen. Its warriors were youths with automatic rifles and grenade launchers who hung around the villages looking for trouble. If they saw someone identified as an enemy of the clan, they rounded up a few of their pals and staged a competent urban ambush. The shooting would draw more of them, then more.

So anyone who came in after Aidid would pay an awful price. The general could vanish deep into the thorny hollows of this nest for a lifetime.

The United Nations had learned the hard way not to send its soldiers into these places. Instead, its leaders had pinned their hopes on the high-tech methods of the U.S. military. Every day and night the sleek, black attack helicopters of the U.S. Army hovered over the city.

With Bryden that morning was John Drysdale, an Englishman who had worked in Somalia for many years. This morning they were both startled by several loud bangs. Directly overhead were four Cobra helicopter gunships firing rockets, miniguns and cannons.

The helicopters, 17 in all, had encircled a large building called the Abdi House, after Aidid's interior minister, Abdi Hassan Awale, also known as "Qeybdid." In a large second-floor room, just before the shooting started, Qeybdid had stood to address a crowd of clan leaders.

Men of middle age were seated at the center of the room on rugs. Elders were sitting in chairs and sofas. Among the elders present were religious leaders, former judges, professors, the poet Moallim Soyan, and the clan's most senior leader, Sheik Haji Mohamed Iman Aden, who was more than 90 years old. Behind the elders, standing against the walls, were the youngest men. Many wore Western clothing, shirts and pants, but most wore the colorful traditional Somali wraparound skirts called ma-awis. In all, 80 to 90 people were in the room.

They represented some of the most successful, respected and best-educated members of the Habr Gidr. Aidid himself was not present. In the weeks since the United Nations had searched and leveled most of the buildings in his residential compound, he had been in hiding.

But Qeybdid and many of the others present were his close advisers, hard-liners, men with blood on their hands and impatient for power. Some were responsible for attacks on U.N. troops, including the June 5 ambush. But some were moderates, men who saw themselves as realists. Ruling impoverished Somalia meant little without friendly ties with the larger world. Many of the men in the room were businessmen, eager for a flood of international aid and happy ties with America. They were unlikely to prevail, but part of the crowd at the Abdi House was there to argue for more cooperation with the United Nations.

Among them was Mohamed Hassan Farah, a garrulous, balding man in his 30s. He had a personal reason for wanting peace and international aid. Farah was an engineer, educated in part in Germany. He saw before him a lifetime of important and lucrative rebuilding. Farah was on the perimeter of the room with the younger men, but instead of standing, he had set himself down on one knee between two sofas, which probably saved his life.

The TOW missile is designed to penetrate the armored walls of a tank. It is a 14-pound projectile with fins at the middle and back that trails a copper wire as thin as a human hair. The wire allows the TOW to be steered in flight so that it will follow precisely the path of a targeting laser. Equipped with a hollow charge inside its rounded tip, it spurts a jet of plasma, molten copper, through the wall, allowing the missile to penetrate and deliver its full explosive charge within. The blast is powerful enough to dismember anyone standing near it.

Former national security adviser Anthony Lake, interviewed for this article, said that the raid "was not specifically designed to kill people."

What Hassan Farah saw and heard was a flash of light and a violent crack. He stood and took one step forward when he heard the whoosh of a second missile, and then another powerful explosion. He was thrown to the floor. Thick smoke now filled the room. He tried to move forward, but his way was blocked by bodies. Among those killed instantly was nonagenarian Sheik Haji Iman. Through the smoke, Farah was startled to see Qeybdid, bloody and burned, still standing at the center of the carnage.

Abdullahi Ossoble Barre was momentarily dazed by the blasts. It had looked to him as if the men closest to the flash just disappeared. He began searching for his son.

All of the men who could still move felt their way along the wall, groping for the door. The air was thick with dark smoke and the smell of blood and burned flesh. Then a third missile exploded, disintegrating the staircase. Hassan Farah tumbled straight down to the first floor. He sat up stunned. He saw he was bleeding from a gash in his right forearm, and he felt a burning on his back, which had been punctured by shrapnel. He crawled forward. There was another explosion above him. Then another and another. Sixteen missiles were fired in all.

Before making it out of the room, Barre found his son beneath a heap of bodies. He began pulling men off the pile. After a great struggle he managed to free his son, jerking him free by the legs. Then they heard Americans from the helicopters storming the house, so he and his son lay still and played dead.

Hassan Farah crawled until he found a door to the outside. In the sky he saw the helicopters that had loosed the missiles, Cobras mostly, but also some Black Hawks. Red streams poured from the Cobras' miniguns. The men with Hassan Farah by the doorway downstairs had a quick decision to make. Some had blood running from their mouths and ears. They could stay in the burning house or brave the copters' guns.

"Let's go out," one of the men said. "Some of us will live and some will die."

They ran. Hassan Farah looked up as he ran and saw more than a dozen helicopters. He made it to a stone wall. Then he saw American soldiers descending on ropes from the helicopters to enter the burning house.

Hassan Farah ran around the building away from the action. Once away from the helicopters, he found he was perfectly safe. A friend in a car saw him on the street and took him to a doctor.

Old Somalia hands Bryden and Drysdale knew better than to stick around. The streets of Mogadishu could be friendly one moment and fiercely violent the next. Drysdale liked to say that the Somalis were like a school of fish in a tank who swam most of the time in random directions until something disturbed them. Then they would snap instantly into formation, all facing the same direction. This helicopter attack looked like that kind of a disturbance.

"Is there going to be trouble?" Bryden asked some of his Somali friends.

"Yes," they told him. "Get out now."

Attack plan opposed Adm. Jonathan Howe had opposed the Abdi House attack at first. The retired admiral had made arresting Aidid a top priority. The plan for this attack marked a serious escalation of conflict. So far, the U.N. search for Aidid had been fairly benevolent. Loudspeakers broadcast warnings before targets were raided.

"Couldn't there be a warning?" he asked. Why, instead of a missile attack, didn't they storm the building and just capture the leaders?

This mission to Mogadishu was not an easy assignment. Howe, who had been President Bush's deputy national security adviser, had slept for months on a cot in his office on the first floor of the decrepit old U.S. Embassy building.

After the June 5 slaughter of the Pakistanis, Howe had pushed Washington so hard for help in apprehending Aidid that he had become known around the White House as "Jonathan Ahab." He was convinced that getting rid of the warlord - not killing him, but trying him as a war criminal and removing him from Somalia - would cut through the tangle of tribal hatred that had bred this war, anarchy and famine.

The U.N. intervention, backed by U.S. Marines, had ended the famine, but where would Somalia go from there? Efforts to build a coalition government from the nation's feuding clans were sputtering.

After Howe arrived in Mogadishu in spring 1993, it didn't take long for him to conclude that Aidid had no interest in power-sharing. Aidid's army had overthrown longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre two years earlier. He and his clan thought it was now their turn to rule Somalia. They had purchased that right with blood, the ancient currency of power.

With 20,000 Marines patrolling the city, Aidid didn't dare confront the United Nations, but when the Marines pulled out on May 4, the situation deteriorated. Howe was stuck trying to advance a more ambitious U.N. agenda at the same time the United States was scaling back its military muscle. After the June 5 disaster, Aidid was officially dealt out of the nation-building process.

Aidid was a formidable opponent. A slender, bald man with delicate features, he could be charming, but also ruthless. Howe also had a hard side. He was a man accustomed to having his wishes carried out.

Right after the June 5 attack, Howe began asking for Delta Force, the small, secret Army unit that specialized in covert missions. Howe envisioned a small group of well-trained soldiers who could mount a bloodless arrest. Members of the elite unit began to train for the mission early in the summer. Commanders dispatched an assessment team to Somalia in June. They reported that the warlord could easily be picked up off the street.

There was some enthusiasm in Washington. Flush with success against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War, some in Congress and the Clinton administration were keen on building a new world order.

The generals, however, wanted more solid reasons for getting their soldiers killed. Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was skeptical of the whole nation-building effort. He considered Somalia a tribal nation that had been living that way for centuries.

As U.N. efforts to grab Aidid met with one failure after the next, frustration mounted. The plan to attack the Abdi House reflected that. The Turkish commander of U.N. troops, Gen. Cevik Bir, and his second, U.S. Army Gen. Thomas Montgomery, wanted to attack without warning in an effort to chop off the head of Aidid's organization.

When Howe proposed issuing a warning, or just storming the building, he was told that such approaches would subject the attackers to unacceptable risks. The Quick Reaction Force, Montgomery's 10th Mountain Division, which was in Mogadishu as a reserve to aid U.N. forces in trouble, lacked the capability to perform the kind of snatch-and-grab tactics used by Delta Force. Approval for the assault was obtained from the Pentagon and White House.

It was the deaths of four Western journalists who raced to the scene of the June 5 attack that dominated news the next day. But the outraged Somali mob that killed them was just a reflection of the anger in Mogadishu. The vicious helicopter attack greatly bolstered Aidid's status, and bloodied the image of the United Nations in Somalia and around the world.

From the Habr Gidr's perspective, the United Nations and, in particular, the United States, had declared war.

Clinton gives go-ahead Howe kept pushing for Delta, and he had allies. Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had visited Somalia weeks before, and she favored the move. So did Secretary of State Warren Christopher and U.S. envoy Robert Gosende. The CIA believed the plan would work. Lake, the national security adviser, and his deputy, Samuel Berger, now supported it as well.

In August, when remote-controlled land mines first killed four American soldiers and then, two weeks later, injured seven more, even Powell approved. Vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, President Clinton assented. Delta would go. Aidid became America's white whale.

Delta arrived with a three-phase mission. Phase One, which would last until Aug. 30, was to get the force up and running. In Phase Two, until Sept. 7, they would concentrate exclusively on finding and capturing Aidid. Phase Three would target Aidid's command structure. Task Force Ranger was going to put him out of business.

Howe weathered with patience the Rangers' early missteps, and by late September the unit hit its stride. Howe was especially pleased on Sept. 21, when a surprise daylight assault on a convoy of cars resulted in the capture of Aidid's chief banker and munitions supplier, Osman Atto. He was imprisoned with a growing number of captives on an island off the coast, in pup tents surrounded by concertina wire.

Aidid was feeling the heat. A Habr Gidr leader cooperating with U.S. forces told them: "He (Aidid) is very tense. The situation out there is very tense." In late August the Somali warlord had written to former President Carter, pleading for him to intervene with Clinton.

Carter had taken this message to the White House, and the suggestion was received warmly by Clinton, who ordered a resumption of efforts to resolve matters peacefully. The State Department began quietly working on a plan to intercede through the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The plan called for an immediate cease-fire, for Aidid to remove himself voluntarily from Somalia pending the results of the international inquiry he had requested, and for a new round of nation-building talks in November. Other feelers were being put out in Mogadishu by Howe through Habr Gidr elders alarmed at the recent turn of events. All of this, he was convinced, was a direct result of Garrison's pressure.

On the weekend of Oct. 2-3, Howe planned a trip to Addis Ababa and Djibouti to work on the peace effort. His return flight to Mogadishu that Sunday afternoon was held up, and his plane circled over the city. The big fight was under way.