The Battle of Mogadishu: Blackhawk Down

Somali children playing on wreckage of downed US helicopter in Mogadishu
Somali Children Play on Wreckage of US helicopter Downed in Mogadishu. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

On October 3, 1993, a special operations unit of U.S. Army Ranger and Delta Force troops headed for the center of Mogadishu, Somalia to capture three rebel leaders. The mission was thought to be relatively straightforward, but when two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters were shot down, the mission took a disastrous turn for the worse. By the time the sun set over Somalia the next day, a total of 18 Americans had been killed and another 73 wounded.

U.S. helicopter pilot Michael Durant had been taken prisoner, and hundreds of Somali civilians had died in what would become known as the Battle of Mogadishu.

While many of the exact details of the fighting remain lost in the fog or war, a brief history of why U.S. military forces were fighting in Somalia in the first place may help bring clarity to the chaos that ensued.

Background: The Somali Civil War

In 1960, Somalia — now an impoverished Arab state of about 10.6 million people located on the eastern horn of Africa — gained its independence from France. In 1969, after nine years of democratic rule, the freely-elected Somali government was overthrown in a military coup mounted by a tribal warlord named Muhammad Siad Barre. In a failed attempt to establish what he called “scientific socialism,” Barre placed much of Somalia’s failing economy under government control enforced by his bloodthirsty military regime.

Far from prospering under Barre’s rule, the Somali people fell even deeper into poverty. Starvation, crippling drought, and a costly ten-year war with neighboring Ethiopia plunged the nation deeper into despair.

In 1991, Barre was overthrown by opposing clans of tribal warlords who proceeded to fight each other for control of the country in the Somali Civil War.

As the fighting moved from town-to-town, the impoverished Somali capital city of Mogadishu became, as it was portrayed by author Mark Bowden in his 1999 novel “Black Hawk Down” to be “the world capital of things-gone-completely-to-hell.”

By the end of 1991, fighting in Mogadishu alone had resulted in the deaths or injury of over 20,000 people. Battles between the clans had destroyed Somalia’s agriculture, leaving most of the country in starvation.

Humanitarian relief efforts undertaken by the international community were thwarted by local warlords who hijacked an estimated 80% of the food intended for the Somali people. Despite the relief efforts, an estimated 300,000 Somalis died of starvation during 1991 and 1992.

Following a temporary ceasefire between the warring clans in July 1992, the United Nations sent 50 military observers to Somalia to safeguard the relief efforts.

US Involvement in Somalia Begins and Grows

U.S. military involvement in Somalia began in August 1992, when President George H. W. Bush sent 400 troops and ten C-130 transport planes to the region to support the multinational U.N. relief effort. Flying out of nearby Mombasa, Kenya, the C-130s delivered over 48,000 tons of food and medical supplies in the mission officially called Operation Provide Relief.

The efforts of Operation Provide Relief failed to stem the rising tide of suffering in Somalia as the number of dead rose to an estimated 500,000, with another 1.5 million displaced.

In December 1992, the U.S. launched Operation Restore Hope, a major joint-command military mission to better protect the U.N. humanitarian effort. With the U.S. providing overall command of the operation, elements of the U.S. Marine Corps quickly secured control of nearly one-third of Mogadishu including its seaport and airport.

After a rebel militia led by Somali warlord and clan leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid ambushed a Pakistani peacekeeping team in June 1993, the UN representative in Somalia ordered Aidid’s arrest. The U.S. Marines were assigned the job of capturing Aidid and his top lieutenants, leading to the ill-fated Battle of Mogadishu.

Battle of Mogadishu: A Mission Gone Bad

On October 3, 1993, Task Force Ranger, composed of elite U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy special operations troops, launched a mission intended to capture warlord Mohamed Far Aidid and two top leaders of his Habr Gidr clan. Task Force Ranger consisted of 160 men, 19 aircraft, and 12 vehicles. In a mission planned to take no longer than one hour, Task Force Ranger was to travel from its camp on the outskirts of the city to a burned-out building near the center of Mogadishu where Aidid and his lieutenants were believed to be meeting.

While the operation initially succeeded, the situation quickly spiraled out of control as Task Force Range attempted to return to headquarters. Within minutes, the “one-hour” mission would turn into a deadly overnight rescue campaign that became the Battle of Mogadishu.

Blackhawk Down

Minutes after Task Force Ranger began to leave the scene, they were attacked by Somali militia and armed civilians. Two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled-grenades (RPGs) and three others were badly damaged.

Among the crew of the first Blackhawk shot down, the pilot and co-pilot were killed, and five soldiers on board were injured in the crash, including one who later died of his wounds. While some of the crash survivors were able to evacuate, others remained pinned down by enemy small arms fire. In the battle to protect crash survivors, two Delta Force soldiers, Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. First Class Randall Shughart, were killed by enemy gunfire and were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1994.

As it circled the crash scene providing covering fire, a second Blackhawk was shot down. While three crewmembers were killed, pilot Michael Durant, though suffering a broken back and leg, lived, only to be taken prisoner by Somali militiamen. The urban battle to rescue Durant and other crash survivors would continue through the night of October 3 and well into the afternoon of October 4.

Though physically mistreated by his captors, Durant was released 11 days later after negotiations led by U.S. diplomat Robert Oakley.

Along with the 18 Americans who lost their lives during the 15-hour battle, an unknown number of Somali militiamen and civilians were killed or injured. Estimates of Somali militia killed range from several hundred to over a thousand, with another 3,000 to 4,000 injured. The Red Cross estimated that some 200 Somali civilians — some of whom reportedly attacked Americans — were killed in the fighting.

Somalia Since the Battle of Mogadishu

Days after the fighting ended, President Bill Clinton ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Somalia within six months. By 1995, the UN’s humanitarian relief mission in Somalia ended in failure. While Somali warlord Aidid survived the battle and enjoyed local fame for “defeating” the Americans, he reportedly died of a heart attack after surgery for a gunshot wound less than three years later.

Today, Somalia remains one of the most impoverished and dangerous countries in the world. According to the international Human Rights Watch, Somali civilians continue to endure dire humanitarian conditions along with physical abuse by warring tribal leaders.

Despite the installation of an internationally-backed government in 2012, the nation is now threatened by al-Shabab, a terror group associated with Al-Qaeda.

Human Rights Watch reports that during 2016, al-Shabab committed targeted killings, beheadings, and executions, particularly of those accused of spying and collaborating with the government. “The armed group continues to administer arbitrary justice, forcibly recruits children, and severely restricts basic rights in areas under its control,” stated the organization.

On October 14, 2017, two terrorist bombings in Mogadishu killed more than 350 people. While no terror group claimed responsibility for the bombings, the U.N.-backed Somali government blamed al-Shabab. Two weeks later, on October 28, 2017, a deadly overnight siege of a Mogadishu hotel killed at least 23 people. Al-Shabab claimed the attack was part of its ongoing insurgency in Somalia.