Looking Back: Operation RESTORE HOPE – OSI Operations in Somalia

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

Just after midnight local time in Somalia on Dec. 9, 1992, a small group of Navy SEALSs came ashore on a beach located adjacent the Mogadishu International Airport in that country’s capital and largest city. Emerging from the surf, the SEALS were met not by an opposing hostile force, but by a large group of approximately 400 international journalists in what has sometimes been described as “the most publicly covered invasion of all time”. The SEALs were followed in the pre-dawn hours by a force of approximately 1,300 Marines and 200 Soldiers who arrived largely by helicopter, flown in from ships located immediately offshore.   Their mission was to secure the airport and port facilities in Mogadishu and also at other logistically important locations throughout the country. The next day, less than 24 hours after the SEALs came ashore, the first two special agents from OSI, SA James Hogue and SA Rocco Dryfka, arrived in Somalia landing at the airport in Mogadishu.

During the early-1990s, severe drought and famine in the horn of Africa region promulgated a humanitarian and political crisis in Somalia, which in turn contributed immensely to a rise in social instability among the populace. The Cold War winding down also compounded the issue as Somalia lost much of its strategic focus and accompanying support from outside nations.  Somalia’s government, a military dictatorship for the previous two decades, became more authoritarian, in an effort to regain control of the people but these efforts only led to more resistance. The government eventually fell, and the country descended into chaos as a number of rival factions and their associated militia forces all competed to assert control over the country.  The growing civil war only increased the hunger and malnutrition already rampant due to the drought and famine. By early 1992, as many 350,000 people in Somalia died from starvation, with another 80,000 people having fled to neighboring countries.

Recognizing that the conditions in Somalia had spiraled into a state of turmoil, and with no hope of improving the growing humanitarian crisis without international intervention, on April 24, 1992, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 751, which created the United Nations Operation in Somalia, or UNISOM. UNISOM became responsible for organizing and supporting the delivery of international relief supplies into Somalia. Even though the international response was strong, the crisis worsened as the relief supplies that arrived in country became targets of the militias who fought over and hijacked them before they could be delivered to the people who needed them the most.

Beginning on Aug. 15, 1992, under the direction of President George H.W. Bush, the Air Force began flying C-141 ‘Starlifter’ and C-130 ‘Hercules’ cargo flights to Somalia, an effort dubbed Operation PROVIDE RELIEF. Many of these flights were accompanied by Army Rangers who provided security for the aircraft while they were on the ground unloading their supplies.  Despite these efforts, enormous amounts of the relief supplies continued to fall into the hands of the militias who raided the storage warehouses and attacked the delivery convoys once the supplies left the airport.

On Dec. 3, 1992, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 794, which authorized member states to “use all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia.” The next day, President Bush, who was just 48 days away from leaving office at the end of his term, publicly announced that Unites States’ ground troops would be committed to Somalia to protect international efforts there. This operation was dubbed Operation RESTORE HOPE.

In a report written by the Joint Chiefs of Staff History Office after United States efforts in Somalia had concluded, historians stated that United States’ military intervention in Somalia was intended to be a mission “other than war,” focusing primarily on “humanitarian relief and suppression of banditry, followed by peace enforcement with international forces under United Nations command”. Its stated purpose was to ensure that relief supplies reached the people who needed them the most with a goal to “break the cycle of starvation” and “save lives.” It was the intent of the United States military establishment to limit combat activities as much as possible, to withdraw combat forces as soon as conditions allowed, and then quickly transfer leadership responsibility for peacekeeping operations from the United States back to the United Nations.

The primary mission of OSI in Somalia was the collection of counterintelligence information, antiterrorism, defensive air base operability, resource protection, counter-threat analysis and the production and delivery of various briefings to a range of military leaders. This mission set also extended to providing support to an international coalition of military forces that participated in the operation in varying roles. By the time the United States concluded overall military operations in early 1994, the coalition numbered up to 27 members. OSI established its first base of operations inside a partially used aircraft hangar at the Mogadishu International Airport.

“Trash, debris, broken, burned out and abandoned equipment littered the airfield,” Hogue recalled. “The hangar leaked, had holes in the walls the size of tractor trailers and the doors were rusted open. Sanitary conditions were essentially non-existent, messing was MREs, (meals ready to eat) water was bottled, and generated electricity was restricted to mission essential communications equipment. To say initial conditions were bleak and austere would be an understatement.”

In addition to OSI, the hangar at Mogadishu International Airport was occupied by roughly 250-300 other Air Force officer and enlisted personnel, mostly from Air Mobility Command, who also established a base of operations at the airport. Personnel established operations and bunk space wherever they could find it inside the hangar. In addition to each other, they also shared the space with a collection of “bats, rats, cats, and several dogs.” It would be several weeks before follow-on engineer forces were able to build a tent city that marginally improved working and living conditions.

“In these conditions, (we) attempted to provide counterintelligence service to our customers, a daunting, and at the time frustrating task,” recalled Hogue. “The environment in Somalia was the most primitive encountered by U.S. forces since at least the end of World War II. Every drop of fuel burned, every watt of electricity consumed, every bite of food eaten, every drop of water consumed, every piece of equipment needed was brought into the country. There was no existing infrastructure to draw from.”

Despite these challenges, OSI special agents immediately went to work. Though there was a general “cease fire” in effect negotiated with the local warlords prior to the arrival of United States forces, military members were subject to frequent attacks by small groups of Somali nationals using both light arms and sometimes heavy weapons. Attacks occurred at the airfield and throughout the city. Travel off the airfield for the OSI team was initially infrequent and only accomplished through heavily armed patrols that were coordinated with the Marines who also provided the vehicle support. These patrols later became more frequent due to OSI gaining specific assigned vehicle support and due to the build-up of Air Force Security Police forces at the airport who assisted with off-airport activities.

OSI was the primary Air Force agency responsible for collection of counterintelligence and threat information for the airport and for the areas immediately adjacent to the airport. These missions later extended further into the city as OSI continued to increase its operational footprint over the passing months. Collection was described as “difficult and at times slightly hazardous,” but also “essential to timely and accurate collection of threat information.”

One unique aspect of OSI operations in Somalia was the distinct lack of any host government oversight, direction, or even consideration. Hogue explained: “Somalia comes as close to the definition of anarchy as any other place on earth, a true state of lawlessness and political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority. Everywhere we looked in Mogadishu was conflict or the result of conflict. Nothing was simple and every situation had unexpected complications attached to it. Inside every problem were two difficult problems struggling to get out.”

Another unique aspect of the OSI mission in Somalia was the heavy reliance on human intelligence collections. Unlike the 1990-1991 Gulf War, where signal intelligence and electronic intelligence collection were a primary focus of counterintelligence operations, these mediums simply did not exist at a level which made their collection efficient or worthwhile in Somalia following years of civil war there. To accomplish their mission, the OSI team had little choice but to go out and talk to people.

“An environment with few host country restrictions, relying primarily on personal relationships, frequent meets with local citizens in specific areas of interests of low-level intelligence that, hopefully contributes to an overall accurate assessment,” Hogue explained. “Timely collection and reporting of information concerning the hostile intentions, strengths, and weaknesses of the adversary (is) critical to commanders and control elements. In this low-tech environment, human intelligence (is) probably the best means of providing that information.”

Human intelligence collection became considerably more successful when Hogue and Dryfka welcomed the addition of a new translator to their team. The translator, Mr. Mahdi Hersi, was an Ethiopian born naturalized American citizen who was raised by Somalian parents. Hersi also spent time as a youth living in Egypt. His ability to provide translation services and to interpret and explain the cultural differences between the Somalis and the Americans proved integral to the success of the OSI collection efforts. Hersi was credited with quickly solving problems found at a level “that would have otherwise complicated or made (OSI’s) job impossible.”

During Operation RESTORE HOPE, the OSI team achieved many notable accomplishments.  They conducted the first route survey between the airport and the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu.  They identified the location of a large arms cache, which when subsequently captured, removed many tons of munitions and ordnance from potential use by the militias. They documented the first known seizure of a Russian built SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. Following an ambush that resulted in the deaths of several Marines, they conducted an investigation that identified and located the suspected gunmen. They identified and located conspirators who were planning an attack against the airport and went on to negotiate an agreement which prevented the attack. They identified and located local citizens of influence. They identified and located the local hangouts of militia forces. They also identified and halted coalition forces that were engaged in black market activities. By the conclusion of their deployment and their departure from Somalia, in mid-March 1994, the OSI team was considered to be so skilled and effective in its operational efforts that they were regularly being sought out by leadership from the Army and Marines for guidance and advice.

Operation RESTORE HOPE was officially concluded on May 4, 1993, when the United States turned over lead control of peacekeeping operations in country back to UNISOM. The United States entered Somalia at the head of a 13-nation international coalition, dubbed the Unified Task Force, or UNITAF, with each member of UNITAF contributing varying levels of military support to the humanitarian relief and peacekeeping effort. The United States provided the bulk of the combat forces for Operation RESTORE HOPE, reaching a peak troop level in March 1993, with approximately 25,000 total military personnel in country.

When the transition back to UNISOM was completed, a 20-nation coalition took over with the United States reducing its personnel numbers to approximately 4,000, an 85% decrease in United States combat forces in Somalia. Operation RESTORE HOPE was over, but the United States military forces remaining in country were still in harm’s way as United Nations efforts continued. Much of the American military forces remained behind as a quick reaction force providing combat support to UNISOM, but still under United States command and control.

In the aforementioned report written by the Joint Chiefs of Staff History Office, the situation in Somalia when the transition occurred was described by historians as: “Mogadishu was calm, heavy weapons had been stored in cantonments, and marauding gangs were suppressed. Food supplies were flowing, starvation practically had ceased, drought eased, and seeds and livestock were being replenished. The clans still had their customary arsenals of small arms, however, and the warlords showed little willingness to compromise or negotiate in good faith.”

Under United Nations control, the mission eventually shifted from a humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping effort more towards the reestablishment of a civil government and permanent stabilization. This move threatened the hold on power the individual warlords gained in the country. Warlord resistance to surrendering power returned Somalia on a track back towards chaos as fighting broke out between the factions and as attacks on United Nations forces increased. As civil war returned to Somalia, the United States redeployed additional combat forces back to the country. The Battle of Mogadishu, commonly referred to as the Black Hawk Down incident, occurred in October 1993. A few weeks later, President William J. Clinton, on the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, authorized the withdrawal of all United States military forces from Somalia. Total withdrawal was completed by March 25, 1994.

In a report released in the late 1990s, the Army Center of Military History accessed the overall success of Operation RESTORE HOPE: “Despite some setbacks and incidents, Operation RESTORE HOPE succeeded in its goal of bringing an end to mass starvation. The heavily armed UNITAF units quickly established security in their sectors, and an uneasy truce kept the peace between the factions. The United States, as part of the international community, had made major contributions to the Somalia humanitarian operations for over two years. Starvation had been stopped and hundreds of thousands of lives saved.”

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment in the Looking Back history series, spotlighting the storied legacy of OSI.