Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Iraq: We Have Seen This Movie Before

Iraq: We Have Seen This Movie Before

Identify the following country: a mid-sized non-European country with a history going back to Biblical events. An ancient trading center, it figured in the works of ancient historians. It has an almost exclusively Muslim population, a troubled colonial history, and until recently was governed by an absolute dictator. The dictator, who ran a corrupt regime and aggressively attacked his neighbor, was ousted by force. The country, whose economy has since collapsed, is occupied by a multinational-armed force that is the frequent target of violent attacks— a mix of locally inspired efforts and actions planned or inspired by the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. It is believed to possess significant untapped oil reserves.

No, it is not Iraq. It is Somalia in 1993.[1] While one would not want to overreach in drawing a comparison between Somalia in 1993 and the current situation in Iraq, our experience in Somalia may be instructive in important respects. When I was serving in Somalia in 1993 as chief of CIA operations, some of the attacks against both multinational and U.S. forces were inspired or at least assisted, by elements of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. At the time, we did not know that. We did know that “foreigners” who had served in the Afghanis’ jihad against Soviet forces were assisting the Somalis in their attacks. In fact, we believed we knew the names of some of the individuals. However, in 1993, Al Qaeda was an unknown organization and Osama bin Laden was simply a “person of interest” in the terrorist world. Subsequently, we discovered that bin Laden had sent members of his organization to Somalia from Sudan to assist local Somali warlord Muhammad Farrah Aidid. According to statements allegedly made by bin Laden, he is doing the same thing in Iraq today.

Examining what happened in Somalia in 1993 may provide us with clues to how Al Qaeda is operating today in Iraq: its structure, personnel, and targeting criteria. For the capture of Saddam Hussein does not end the threats to our troops there. It also may, by exclusion, permit us to distinguish between Al Qaeda-inspired attacks and cases of local Iraqis’ “venting” through armed actions. Much as we did not know exactly what we were up against in Somalia in 1993, in Iraq today we have been trying to “drain the Babylonian swamp” without always knowing the enemy.

Improvised Explosive Devices

I believe that all of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used against multinational forces in Somalia were command detonated. I also believe these attacks were done under the guidance of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda did not appear to use or encourage the use of pressure mines or booby traps. This may have been to conserve resources or (a very distant second) to prevent casualties to locals. It seemed that a very few highly trained Al Qaeda members were operating in a sea of willing local “trigger pullers.” The locals had a wide range of motivations, from a hatred of the multinational forces to a desire to enhance their own reputations, or most often, we believed, because they were well paid for their efforts. The IEDs were evidently fabricated by one or two Al Qaeda bomb makers and then passed to other Al Qaeda operatives, who would select and train locals to actually carry out the operation. Al Qaeda operatives would select and help place the IEDs, but no Al Qaeda operatives would be present when the devices were employed in ambushes.

The placement of the IEDs and the escape routes for the locals who set them off were competently planned and well thought out. Targeting of specific vehicles was striking. While there were only a few IED ambushes in Somalia, they were all against a Humvee traveling in a convoy of Humvees and other vehicles. This seemed to be the case even when, militarily, there were higher-value targets in the same convoy. This may be because a Humvee usually means U.S. passengers. Alternatively, the bomb makers may have fabricated the explosive charge in the IED to be most effective against a target the size and armor level of a Humvee. One is also drawn to conclude that Al Qaeda had very low confidence in the local collaborators. It may have figured that the Humvee, with its distinctive appearance, could be recognized the locals. It may well be worth comparing the “forensic signature” of the IEDs currently in use in Iraq with those used in Somalia, to determine whether the bomb makers active in Iraq were trained by the same instructors or in the same facilities as those involved in Somalia, or even if they are the same bomb makers.

In 1993, we also received numerous reports that weapons and explosives were being smuggled into the Mogadishu area hidden beneath large shipments of scrap metal. The Somalis, perhaps at the direction of their Al Qaeda advisors, tended to make one large shipment hidden under scrap metal in a single truck, as opposed to small shipments scattered among many trucks. Apparently, the theory was that good security on one truck was easier to maintain than merely adequate security for many trucks.

RPG-7s and Indirect Fire Weapons

RPG-7s were widely used against the multinational forces in Somalia in 1993, including in an anti-helicopter role. While local warlords were actively seeking man-portable surface- to-air missiles (SAMs) to use against the coalition, no SAMs were actually used against the coalition forces. The use of RPG-7s in an anti-helicopter role probably resulted from training by Al Qaeda operatives, who would have picked up the concept during their battles with Soviet forces in Afghanistan. This Al Qaeda training led to three distinct and identifiable “signatures” that should be watched for should this tactic be employed against the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

Volley fire: While we do not know whether RPG-7s were used because of the unavailability of SAMs or because the Al Qaeda operatives believed the poorly trained local forces would do better with the RPG-7, we do know that the volley fire of large numbers of RPG-7s against low-flying helicopters was effective. It downed three helicopters and seriously damaged several others.

Fuse cutting of RPG-7 warheads: We received numerous reports on this modification, and I believe I personally witnessed the tactic in action against one of the early Task Force Ranger raids. More than half a dozen RPG-7s were fired at low-flying helicopters in this instance, all of which appeared to have detonated early and while the projectile was still on an upward trajectory. As we understood the procedure, the fuse leading from the rocket body to the warhead was shortened. In normal use, when the RPG-7 rocket exhausts it fuel, it also ignites a length-of-time fuse that burns down and then detonates the rocket warhead. This prevents a warhead that misses its target and fails to detonate from being recovered by opposing forces and its explosives employed against the original user. The Al Qaeda technique was to shorten the warhead’s time fuse, resulting in the warhead’s detonating much earlier. This in effect made the RPG-7 an air-bursting weapon. This may be a unique signature of Al Qaeda training.

Scorch-and-debris wounds: There were several anecdotal reports that the individuals who attempted to use the RPG-7 against helicopters frequently suffered from scorch and debris wounds on their lower bodies as a result of the back blast from the tube striking the ground behind them. The RPG-7 was of course never intended for use against targets much above the horizontal, and even in normal use, great care must be exercised to avoid injury from its substantial back blast. The U.S.-led forces now in Iraq should use their access to local hospitals in the wake of any RPG-7 attacks to identify possible suspects.

Indirect fire weapons: These were frequently used against the multinational compounds in Somalia, mostly in the form of less than half a dozen rounds of nighttime harassing fire from a single mortar tube. All indications suggested that local Somalis operating in small groups, whose make-up changed from incident to incident, carried out these attacks. The individuals were well paid for their efforts and operated on the general plan of dropping a few rounds into a tube and then running. The only criterion for success seemed to be that the mortar rounds needed to impact somewhere on a multinational force compound.

In contrast to these harassing attacks, one very different mortar attack was carried out against Task Force Ranger shortly after its arrival in the country. This attack involved multiple mortar tubes in sustained fire, with direct observation of the target and fire correction, along with a radio communication net to tie together the forward observer and mortar crews. The mortar tubes rotated their turns firing to avoid pinpointing by counter-battery radar and helicopter patrols. The planning and disposition of forces was professional (though the effectiveness of the attack suffered from poorly maintained ammunition and lousy Somali shooting skills). We believed at the time and remain convinced now, based on the professionalism of the attack, that Al Qaeda planned it.

Charities, NGOs, and the UN

It was my unfortunate experience to observe the local Somali warlords and their Al Qaeda advisors effectively and thoroughly penetrate and co-opt most of the charities, nongovernmental organizations, and the civilian sectors of the UN operating in Somalia a decade ago. These organizations were at best incredibly naive, and at worst ignored activities around them out of fear. This cooption and penetration ran from using charity-owned vehicles to move weapons through the city to using NGOs’ radios and radio frequencies for communications (no telephone network existed in Somalia in 1993), to using UN compounds for safe houses and hiding places and extorting funds from these organizations in return for refraining from staging violent attacks on their facilities and personnel.

None of these organizations was then in any way prepared to meet the challenges of operating in an environment containing a well-organized terrorist organization. I doubt this has changed. The sophistication of these activities was probably beyond the local Somalis. Even if it were not, Al Qaeda must have learned the lesson that these organizations can be a valuable resource in confronting a multinational force. By the time the U.S. pulled out of Somalia, any charitable organization or UN compound not being shot at by the warlords was considered by us to be exempt because it represented too valuable a resource to the warlords to threaten. Multinational forces in Iraq today should make it a priority to investigate the circumstances of all these organizations to determine to what extent Al Qaeda operatives are exploiting them.

Searching for “Elvis”

After the August 1993 arrival of Task Force Ranger in Somalia, the main tasking for the CIA presence in Mogadishu was to find Somali warlord Muhammad Farrah Aidid. (Elvis was the nickname used by U.S. forces in Mogadishu for Somali warlord Muhammad Farrah Aidid.) While we believe we located Aidid on several occasions, we were never able to pinpoint him with enough confidence and for a sufficiently long enough periods for Task Force Ranger to launch a raid. Despite our lack of success, we did note several sophisticated MO’s being used by the Somali forces protecting Aidid. It is likely that least some of these procedures were because of recommendations given to Aidid’s forces by al-Qaeda operatives advising them.

While the capture of Saddam Hussein takes the Iraqi “ace of spades” off the wanted list, there are undoubtedly other individuals still in Iraq who are leading the “insurgency” and will be targets for capture by the multinational forces. If media reports are to be believed, the circumstances of Hussein’s capture strongly indicated that he had little or nothing to do with the insurgency. There was not even a pretense of a command-and-control apparatus around Hussein, and his reported mental condition suggests he was in no condition to track, much less direct, a nationwide resistance movement. This strongly suggests the clearly coordinated attacks against multinational forces are being directed and coordinated by an outside organization, such as Al Qaeda. Multinational forces now in Iraq and tasked with the capture of the “Babylonian Elvis” may benefit from looking for traces of the MO’s used in Mogadishu.

All multinational force locations were carefully monitored for activity. Whenever significant activity was observed that could possibly be preparations for a raid, this activity was reported on a radio net monitored by Aidid’s security force. (The radio frequencies used by Aidid’s security forces were those set up by charities and other NGO’s. Aidid’s forces pirated the frequencies and used the NGO’s transmissions as cover.) Aidid’s security force never came up on this radio net, but coordinated itself using point-to-point transmissions with walkie-talkies. Whenever multinational force activity was reported, Aidid immediately moved from his location and remained in transit until the multinational force activity subsided. Aidid never left a location in the same vehicle in which he arrived. Aidid’s subordinates would prearrange times and places for meetings, but they would never know if Aidid would be at these meetings until he walked through the door. All contact with Aidid was person-to-person: he never used a radio or satellite telephone once Task Force Ranger began searching for him. Aidid always remained in an urban area. At night, he would always sleep at a multi-resident compound containing many innocent bystanders, such as a hospital, mosque or orphanage, which would present any raiding force with a significant “collateral damage” problem.

While there may have been procedures which we did not identify in use in Mogadishu, multinational forces in Iraq may wish to consider at minimum: launching capture raids from out of area bases, examining all NGO communication networks for co-option, being prepared to target any vehicle leaving a raid location, planning to deal with large numbers of innocent bystanders at any raid site and in urban locations, being prepared for the target to flee the location on foot.

Things We Tried or Wanted to Try

Do not fort up: Taking the fight to the enemy not only disrupts his plans and achieves attrition of his forces, it is vital to maintaining a Humint program. If intelligence officers cannot get out on the streets, meet their sources, and search for new sources, Humint suffers. Humint more than anything else identifies the enemy’s plans and intentions and, in the end, gets a combatant to the “tipping point” that will destroy the enemy. In this vein, value walk-ins. Invaluable sources have often simply walked into the strangest places at the strangest times and volunteered their services. Too often they have been turned away or had to try numerous times before someone realized their value and listened to them. Every one of the troops, civilians and contractors in Iraq should be aware and active as a Humint operator. They should know what a walk-in is, how to handle one, and that they may have to talk to many unworthwhile walk-ins for every one good one.

If the troops do not speak Arabic, they should have “walk-in cards.” These are as old as the hills and can be kept and carried by anyone. They are simply pertinent questions, in English on one side and the local language on the other. If troops can handle “yes” and “no” in the local language, with a dozen or so index cards they can begin debriefing a walk- in anywhere, anytime. Multinational troops should have the same cards in their native languages.

Look for welding and cutting torches: In Mogadishu, we worried about the bad guys putting together “technicals” (a civilian four-wheel drive truck to the back of which a crew- served or heavy automatic weapon has been lashed, used in the role of a heavy weapons squad) in their backyards and local garages. As a result, after dark, we had airborne platforms looking for the unusual light signature that welding rods and cutting torches produce. These light signatures are difficult to suppress, especially after dark, even when the work is done indoors.

While technicals do not seem to be a problem in Iraq, improvised rocket launchers and car bombs are being used with good effect. Cutting torches and welding rods are almost certainly used in fabricating these weapons. Much of the work is probably performed after dark, out of the view of the local neighborhood. Airborne platforms will be at their most effective in detecting the unique light signatures put out by welding rods and cutting torches. Anyone using a welding rod or cutting torch in Baghdad at 3am probably warrants a visit from a ground patrol or gunship.

Money: As in Somalia, in Iraq a significant amount of “rent- an-insurgency” is apparently being undertaken. This means cash and a lot of it. Cash has to be stored, protected, moved around, and accounted for. This is one more set of targets for intelligence program. While we were never able to achieve progress on this in 1993, we were very interested in how Aideed financed his operation and moved his money around. In retrospect, a much more interesting question would have been to what degree Al Qaeda was involved and how it structured its financing.

In 1993, we wanted to get Humint reporting into the money- changing/jewelry section of Mogadishu, where what passes for consumer banking there is conducted. It would be surprising if this were not the case now in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. Money has to be changed from dollars to dinars, large-denomination bills must be converted to small denominations, and funds need to be moved in and out of the country and from city to city. Humint penetration of the money-changing/jewelry market should give a good insight into who the players are and how active they are.

Meeting Engagement: While “preparing” for a meeting engagement (a combat action that occurs when a moving force, incompletely deployed for action, engages an enemy at an unexpected time and place, usually with high casualties on both sides) may seem like a contradiction in terms, we could have done a better job of it in Somalia and it needs to be done in Iraq. The multinational force military leadership will deal with the battle itself; but both the civilian and military multinational forces need to prepare for handling the aftermath. While the U.S. and multinational political leadership seem prepared to stay the course in Iraq (unlike Somalia in 1993), the civilian and military leadership in Iraq need to be ready to react when, not if, this occurs. A U.S.-led multinational military force can win a meeting engagement, but the military leadership needs to view this as an opportunity and follow on immediately across the board with aggressive activity to exploit the disarray such a battle always brings to the opponent. The civilian authorities should be prepared to deal with the local population’s understandable concern and apprehension as well as the international media’s inevitable inflamed reporting of this kind of battle. In Mogadishu, U.S., forces won the battle and lost the media war. Well-thought-out guidance, with accurate and timely briefings and an aggressive and broad-based military response, will go along way in countering the “CNN effect” that carried the day in Mogadishu.


Somalia ten years ago and Iraq today are not the same places. If, however, Al Qaeda and its operatives are active in Iraq, it is likely and logical that the multinational forces in Iraq will see traces of MOs and signatures that were used with success in Somalia. While these will have been updated and modified to the local environment, with careful analysis, they should still be identifiable. Being able to distinguish Al Qaeda-inspired efforts from local Iraqi “venting,” or even from the actions of other terrorist organizations, would be valuable in prioritizing multinational force efforts to curtail the current violence in Iraq.


[1] Somalia, about the size of Texas, was called the “Land of Punt” by ancient Egyptian writers. The frankincense referred to in Biblical narratives probably originated in the land that is now Somalia, which was visited and written about by Arab historian Ibn Battuta in 1331. Chinese historians record visits of Chinese fleets beginning in the eleventh century and continuing intermittently until the 1400s. The 2003 CIA World Factbook lists Somalia as almost exclusively Sunni Muslim. It was colonized into separate protectorates by the British in 1886-1960 and the Italians in 1889-1960. The dictator Muhammad Said Barre began a series of border wars starting in 1974 with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region. Barre was ousted in a 1991 coup. The attacks on the multinational forces of Operation Restore Hope include the infamous October 3, 1993 attack on Task Force Rangers in Mogadishu that was the subject of Mark Bowden’s book Black Hawk Down (New York. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999), the best general account of the event. As of 2003, oil exploration rights to Somalia were still carried as an asset by ConocoPhillips in SEC filings; exploration operations had been suspended due to “force majeure.”


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