Black Hawk Rising

Ricky Baldwin

While the U.S.
media drool over a possible invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration is waging
a quiet war against the people of one of the world’s poorest countries: Somalia.
Before September 11, the UN’s Human Development Index lists the much-maligned
Horn of Africa nation near rock bottom. But now the Somali people (“skinnies” in
U.S. military slang) are suffering an added detriment with the U.S. shutdown of
Somalia’s largest company, al-Barakaat, a telecommunications firm used by many
Somalis as a kind of bank, because terrorists allegedly used it.

“Disruptions to
Al-Barakaat’s worldwide cash flows could be as high as $300 to $400 million per
year,” according to Deputy Treasury Secretary Kenneth Dam, reporting on the
“financial war on terrorism” to the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing
and Urban Affairs, January 29. “Of that,” Dam said, “our experts and experts in
other agencies estimate that $15 to $20 million per year would have gone to
terrorist organizations,”—about 5 percent, if true. Meanwhile, the Somali
economy is devastated, and average families in Somalia have no formal banking
system to turn to.

Worse, U.S.
officials have repeatedly listed Somalia as a potential target for its “war on
terrorism” since November. “The U.S. administration is studying countries in
which al-Qaida could function and is taking a particular interest in Somalia,”
said Secretary of State Colin Powell in a recent interview with Washington
. On January 17 the Congressional Research presented Congressional
representatives a report listing possible options for the U.S. in Somalia, none
of them encouraging from the “skinny” perspective.

The Sharks

International news
agencies report that U.S. military officials have been meeting with Somali
“warlords” opposed to the current Transitional National Government (TNG) in
Mogadishu since late last year, and U.S. naval surveillance planes have
reportedly been increasing their reconnaissance along the Somalian coast
(Reuters, January 4). Hundreds of U.S. troops may have also been spotted in
neighboring Kenya. French airforce and German navy surveillance of Somalia have
been operating out of neighboring Djibouti since December, according to the
Africa News Service and Agence France Presse. Troops belonging to
Ethiopia—Somalia’s longtime enemy—entered the autonomous Somalian region of
Puntland in December to provide a month of training to troops loyal to former
Puntland President Abdullahi Yusuf (Reuters, January 13).

Ethiopian troops
have crossed the Somalian border several times on various pretexts over the last
few months, say observers, and Addis Ababa has begun feeding Washington dubious
accusations that the small anti-Ethiopian group al-Ittihaad i-Islamiya has ties
to al-Qaida. Some of these reports also claim al-Qaida dominates the TNG, even
runs al-Barakaat. Anti- TNG “warlords” inside Somalia, many of whom are funded
by Ethiopia, have repeated these claims, calling for Washington to strike at

“We already have
a commitment from the Americans," said Ibrahim Mohammed, leader of one
opposition group. “They came here. We had discussions, and we’re moving ahead
with our plans to liberate Somalia and get rid of all terrorists once and for
all,” (CNN, January 13).

Meanwhile, the
Pentagon was deploying 600 military “advisers” to the Philippines. Muslim
insurgents have been fighting the government in Manila for many years, but now
the rebels are being linked to al-Qaida—a strategy with apparent broad
potential, dubbed the “Manila Method” only half in jest by one observer (New
York Times
, January 3).

The Manila

The Bush
administration has been very clear from the start that its “war on terrorism”
does not end with Osama bin Laden or Afghanistan, even promising at the end of
2001 that “next year will be a war year.” The President’s State of the Union
address rattled a long-term saber at a supposed “axis of evil” including Iran,
Iraq, and North Korea, but most serious analysis has noted that these three
nations have little in common, are not aligned, and in the case of North Korea
seem to be moving toward reconciliation with U.S. allies.

More likely, as
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the New York Times January
8, the Pentagon is first looking at “friendly countries like the Philippines and
Indonesia that would welcome American help in ridding themselves of terrorist
networks… also…at possible terror bases in countries like Somalia and Yemen that
are weakly governed and ill equipped to uproot them.” The fact that the brutal
regimes in the Philippines and Indonesia are counted as “friendly” is certainly
telling and a long and bloody history records what kind of “American help” they
are likely to get.

One of these
“friendly” countries, Indonesia, is barred from receiving U.S. military aid
because of decades of brutal repression. Twice, the Indonesian army and
pro-government paramilitaries massacred East Timorese civilians, most recently
in plain sight of UN observers and international media. Even now, after the
brutal, U.S.-backed Suharto regime has ended, the tradition of murder and
extrajudicial incarceration lives on, notably in the Aceh province of Indonesia.
Yet Wolfowitz tells the Times these restrictions against aid to
Indonesia’s troops “really need to be reviewed in the light of Sept. 11.”

But any such
campaigns in the near future are not likely to be direct military interventions
by the U.S., as in the infamous “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia, 1992-1995.
Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, points out, “blundering into Somalia unless bin Laden is
there, in search of people who can run in any direction, with no fixed physical
targets, is sort of Black Hawk Down phase two,” (Reuters, January 4).

Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld has been fairly explicit. Most nations will be “encouraged” to
deal with terrorism “internally,” Rumsfeld said, meaning “the United States is
encouraging proxy wars on terrorism in the Philippines, Yemen, and Somalia by
quietly providing intelligence, training and artillery while the locals do most,
if not all, of the fighting” (AP, January 7). In Yemen, this has so far meant
mass expulsions of foreign students and teachers, and violent clashes with Abida
tribespeople (AP, January 3).

Phases One and

The new film
Black Hawk Down
—loosely based on an actual U.S. Army Ranger assault on the
crowded Bakara marketplace in Mogadishu—hit theatres just as the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee began hearings on U.S. policy options towards Somalia. The
movie is overt propaganda, called by British director Ridley Scott “a
recruitment film” for the U.S. military, it is significantly different from the
book in plot and theme. The Pentagon not only supplied real Black Hawk
helicopters, pilots, and stuntpeople, but made changes to the script, according
to Mark Bowden, author of the book, Black Hawk Down.

One actor in the
film, Brendon Sexton, says the original script did contain some “questions”
about the value of the mission in Somalia, the brutality of war, etc. Speaking
in a radio interview on the Pacifica Network’s “Democracy Now,” Sexton said he
and a few others wanted to work on the film because the script appeared to be
focused on these “questions.” But, Sexton said, “all that was cut out before
filming ever started.” He says he and other actors conspired to spin certain
loosely scripted dialogue, only to see those scenes cut.

Author Mark
Bowden also says the film’s producers hired military personnel as “consultants”
for “accuracy” (deleting a scene, for example, where a lieutenant slaps a
wounded man). The name of one of the principal characters was also changed
because the real soldier is presently in prison for rape. There were, according
to Bowden and Sexton, no Somali “consultants” hired for “accuracy.”

The Somalian
Justice Advocacy Center in California has called for a boycott of the movie,
because it “portrays Somalis as violent savages,” full of hatred of the U.S.
without reason. Leaving aside the U.S. backing of former Somalian dictator Siad
Barre, who murdered thousands, the fact that U.S. forces had earlier blown up a
compound where clan leader Mohamed Farrah Aideed’s senior officers were
gathering for peace negotiations with the UN—killing 54 people—would apparently
not be reason enough to be angry. Also, in the mission depicted in the movie,
Black Hawk helicopters were attacking the crowded Bakara marketplace in broad
daylight, ultimately killing well over 1,000 innocent civilians.

Many reviewers
have seized on the central Alamo-like theme of the film: “The purpose of the
raid on October 3, Black Hawk Down suggests, was to prevent Aideed’s
murderous forces from starving Somalia to death,” (George Manbiot in the London
Guardian, January 29). However, as Noam Chomsky and former executive
director of Africa Watch Rakiya Omar have pointed out, the worst of the civil
war violence and widespread hunger were over well before the U.S. white knights
arrived to “save” Somalia. A year before U.S. decided to “restore hope” over a
quarter of Somalia’s children had been lost, says Somalia expert Christine Carr
of UC-Berkley. But by the time the first U.S. soldiers landed the fighting had
reportedly ended in all but one province in the south, and 80 to 90 percent of
the aid was getting through, according to the Red Cross, American Friends
Service Committee and other aid agencies operating there for years. Omar says
the U.S. likely made the situation worse, not better.

This is not to
mention the fact that the U.S. had backed Aideed against the other clan leaders
after the Barre government fell, ignoring the clans’ readiness to stop fighting
and probably strengthening Aideed disproportionately. The “good intentions”
described by most reviewers, even critics, were simply not a factor in the
operation, as indicated by the remark of its commander Lt. Gen. Anthony Zinni
that, “I’m not counting bodies…I’m not interested.” There is still no official
U.S. estimate, but other estimates range from 7-10,000 civilians killed. Such
reviews also fail to take into account Colin Powell’s description of the
Somalian mission at the time as a “public relations” action.

In 1992, such
“public relations” involved claims that the U.S. was involved in “humanitarian
intervention” in Somalia. In 2002, the aims of the “war on terrorism” would
presumably be no better for the people of Somalia. If director Ridley Scott were
to make a sequel to this “recruitment film,” where the U.S. shuts down Somalia’s
makeshift banking system, undermines the fledgling government, backs Ethiopian
invaders, and installs a vicious “warlord” proxy as dictator, could he make one
that would leave audiences worshipping U.S. “advisers” as heroes and shaking
their heads at the ungrateful “skinnies?” Time will tell.


Baldwin is an activist and organizer writing on labor, racism, and foreign
policy. He is a member of the Anti-War Anti-Racist Effort (AWARE) in