Inside Story

Black Hawk Down: 20 years on

It was a battle that left 18 US soldiers and between 1,500 and 3,000 Somalis dead, but what lessons have been learned?

It has been 20 years since the US fought a disastrous battle in Somalia that came to be known as Black Hawk Down.

It started as a humanitarian mission, but culminated in the Battle of Mogadishu.

US troops were ambushed on October 3, 1993, while trying to capture the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 troops killed in the fierce firefight that followed, the worst for the US military since the Vietnam War. US estimates put the number of Somali casualties somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000.

Those events led to the US withdrawing from Somalia – shaping that country’s future and influencing US military intervention in crises around the world.

It came as a tremendous surprise to the American people, because the United States military didn’t do a great job of communicating the evolution of what had been an humanitarian effort …. When Black Hawk Down took place, the American public was astonished, because they just saw a group of Africans killing American soldiers for what they thought was just a simple delivery of relief.

by Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center

The US is accused of operating a network of bases, training programmes and so-called advisory deployments across Africa.

It is a claim flatly denied by US Africa Command, which says the US operates out of a single ‘military base’ in Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

But reports suggest US troops are stationed, in some capacity, in bases across the continent. For example, a so-called ‘co-operative security location’ in Entebbe in Uganda is said to be home to US drone operations, and a station in Burkina Faso’s capital is also reportedly a hub for surveillance planes as well as elite forces capable of carrying out ‘high risk activities’.

Military intervention is generally seen as a last resort to resolve conflicts and prevent humanitarian disasters around the world, but such action can be justified under what is called a Responsibility to Protect – a set of principles adopted by the United Nations in 2005.

They determine that a state has the responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities, such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

It also says that the international community has a duty to help states fulfil this responsibility – using appropriate diplomatic and peaceful means to protect populations where possible but also being prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.

So 20 years on, how has the Black Hawk Down incident shaped US military intervention? And what lessons have been learned from the Battle of Mogadishu?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Emira Woods, the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies; Jamal Osman, an independent journalist and filmmaker specialising in Somalia; and Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“From a Somali perspective Black Hawk Down … was a black day, we call it a black Sunday …. About 3,000 Somalis were reportedly killed on that particular day, and since then, the US military might have withdrawn because of that humiliation and the defeat caused by the killing of American soldiers, but America never left Somalia, and there have been CIA operatives in Somalia, special forces operating, and we became the number one enemy of the most powerful country in the world, and we were punished for that.”

Jamal Osman, journalist and filmmaker