Old lessons for US on manhunts

A US gunship attack yesterday hints at coming 'special ops.'

A US gunship pounded Taliban headquarters in Kandahar yesterday, signaling that the offensive against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership had entered a new phase.

A defense official confirmed that the attack was led by an AC-130, a lumbering airplane typically deployed to support ground forces headed for small-unit operations.

When US commandos drop from their helicopters in search of Mr. bin Laden and associates, they will have lessons of recent history to guide them.

The US record on special operations and manhunts has been far from perfect, from a disastrous attempt to rescue US hostages in Iran in 1980, to the successful capture of Panamanian dictator MaƱuel Noriega in 1989, to a failed mission to capture the Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid in 1993.

Delta Force, the US Army's most elite counter-terrorism unit, which to this day does not officially exist, will almost certainly be one of Washington's primary tools as it goes after bin Laden.

While the task of finding an opponent as sophisticated as bin Laden may be daunting, analysts say that this time, US operatives here have several advantages over conditions in Somalia that improve chances of success.

"The intelligence environment is better [in Afghanistan], because of the nature of bin Laden's operation - he is more observable to our high-tech systems," says a former US Special Forces officer who was involved in the manhunts in Panama and Somalia. Due to his current work in Asia and Africa, he asked not to be further identified.

"Aidid could shift houses literally next door, and we wouldn't see or hear him" in the urban warrens of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the officer recalls. "But bin Laden's moves are bigger and longer-legged, out in the bush, and that makes him vulnerable to our seeing and listening systems."

In Somalia, US use of high-tech gear was a handicap.

"[The Americans] relied on highly sophisticated intelligence in a place without phones," says Mohamed Djirdeh, a Somali hotelier who watched the Mogadishu manhunt unfold on his doorstep. "It's like trying to pull a donkey cart with a jet. It doesn't work."

The challenge in catching bin laden will be to flush him out into the open. American air strikes against the regime of the radical Islamic Taliban militia have been under way for the past 10 days. The same kind of pressure was applied in Panama by a land invasion - though the result could have gone either way.

"If Noriega had left his girlfriend's house and gone next door to the basement, we probably would have missed him," says the former officer. "But he went in a convoy in an urban area to the Papal Nuncio. It was a big move."

Provoking such a big move from bin Laden may be key to US plans. Penetrating bin Laden's operation with human spies or even finding turncoats may be impossible for US intelligence, as it proved to be in Somalia.

But if bin Laden stays put, that may provide an opportunity for spy-versus-spy.

"The longer he stays in one place, the more people know it - the people who feed him, the people who get fuel for his generators," says the officer.

Just as President Bush has declared he wants bin Laden "dead or alive," the US also evoked a Wild West theme in the Somalian manhunt, printing and distributing "Wanted" posters and offering a $25,000 for Aidid's capture.

American troops first landed on the beaches of Mogadishu to help end a famine there in December 1992, performing what President George Bush Sr. called "God's work" at which Americans "cannot fail."

But when the US and United Nations subsequently became mired in nation-building, threatening the power of Somalia's strongest warlord, that mission soon devolved into a manhunt for General Aidid. Gunmen from his clan were responsible for killing 22 Pakistani peacekeeping troops in June 1993.

The US military at the time rated the chances of getting Aidid as just 1 in 4. Senior intelligence officers estimated that only 30 to 40 percent of their leads were right, meaning that two-thirds of their capture attempts were likely to fail.

Working in what one Delta alumnus called an "excruciating" intelligence environment, Delta teams and their US Army Ranger back-up developed an embarrassing "Keystone Kops" image.

The first raid, in which Delta commandos fast-roped from their helicopters, was based on faulty intelligence and mistakenly targeted a United Nations compound and a neighboring relief agency office.

Secretary of State Colin Powell - then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - reportedly was so angry that he said: "I had to screw myself off the ceiling."

In another high-profile blunder, a host of elders from a rival clan - who were utterly sympathetic to efforts to nail Aidid, and were living in a section of the city hostile to Aidid - were arrested and whisked away.

Aidid lookalikes were also picked up, to the amusement of Somalis.

"It was clear that if they did not have the intelligence to distinguish me from another, then I had little to worry about," Aidid told this correspondent later.

The hazards of using human intelligence - which may or may not play a major role in Afghanistan - were on full display in Somalia.

Paid Somali agents often gave false information. Spies were found with radio transmitters, and killed by Aidid operatives.

One US plan - later detailed by US Rangers - had an informant place an infrared beacon on a roof where Aidid was, then douse himself with chem-light juice so he would "glow" for Rangers wearing night-vision goggles, and not be shot in a raid.

A prime CIA source killed himself early on in the mission while playing Russian roulette. As a member of Aidid's security force, he was supposed to have given a finely carved cane to the warlord, with a homing beacon embedded inside.

The manhunt came to a grisly climax on Oct. 3 and 4, 1993, when 18 American troops were killed in the fiercest firefight since the Vietnam War. Some of their bodies were dragged through the streets by the jubilant victors.

"What helped Aidid was the clan system, and the anti-American feeling," says Hossein Ali Salad, a Somali witness to the manhunt, contacted by phone in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. That enabled Aidid - who wore a variety of disguises, and rarely spent more than a few hours in a single place - to move relatively freely in his clan areas, relying on a tight-lipped support network.

In Afghanistan, Mr. Salad says, "Americans are again seen as the aggressors," so it is unlikely that the Taliban will betray bin Laden's location.

But there is a key difference: the fact that bin Laden is a Saudi-born Arab, and not Afghan at all. As a "guest," he enjoys certain privileges. But recent Taliban signals about possibly handing him over - to prevent further US bombing - could undermine bin Laden's position.

The US will have another advantage, too, which it did not have in Somalia: the element of surprise.

In Afghanistan, Delta Force is likely to be operating out of remote airports in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, or from US aircraft carriers.

But in Somalia, Delta Force was billeted at the Mogadishu airport, which is surrounded by low hills and sand dunes, on one of the most high-profile spots in the city. Every time a helicopter took off, or Delta geared up for a raid, the news spread to Aidid to get ready.

"Everything we did was being watched by the enemy, who had people inside the airport and outside, watching," says the former Special Forces officer. It was an airport - and a mission - that Delta Force would rather forget.

In Afghanistan, he says, "we have a lot of advantages that we didn't have in Somalia."

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