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America Strikes Back: Interview of Former Ranger in Failed Somalia Mission

Aired October 24, 2001 - 09:35   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: One of the questions that we have been hearing about the war is whether the United States will actually use helicopters against the Taliban. Eight years ago, what began as a relief mission in Somalia eight years ago turned into a full-scale attack against U.S. personnel. Mogadishu fighters taught by Islamic militants with ties to Osama bin Laden took down two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters; 18 Americans were killed.

CNN's Miles O'Brien is standing by at the CNN center with a perspective on what happened that day, and what the United States has learned from the attack -- Miles.

Paula, you can put in the category of lessons learned.

And to join me here, to give us a sense of some of the lessons learned, is somebody who was there. Keni Thomas is a former ranger. He was on the ground in part of this firefight eight years ago -- almost exactly eight years ago: October 3, 1993.

Good to have you with us, Keni.

SGT. KENI THOMAS, FORMER BLACKHAWK RANGER: Thanks for having us.

O'BRIEN: Let's just walk through the mission and try to get of sense of what the military has learned about special operations and how to conduct operations like these as a result of it. As we take a look at the animation, first of all, let's get you into Somalia, on the horn of Africa. U.S. forces were there, initially commanded by the first President Bush to engage in famine relief. Things changed when you got on the ground there, though, didn't they?

THOMAS: Yes, sir. We were told our mission was we were going on, basically, a manhunt to capture Mohammed Farah Aideed, the warlord responsible for the all the bad doings, we were told.

O'BRIEN: You guys were based right here on the Indian Ocean there, in a hangar there. And the mission, deceptively simple, was to use a combination of rangers and the Delta Force, which is that secret army team that engages in hostage rescue missions and that sort of thing, to fly to this area, the target building, where there was some intelligence that he would be. It seemed straightforward, like something you trained for, right? THOMAS: This was the seventh mission we had done. We had been doing missions throughout the months that we were there. So this one, going in, was just like what we thought any of the others might be, except en route we got news that they had seen heavy weapons going into the building next to the target building. So we knew right away that there were going to be people.

O'BRIEN: Let's get a closer view. Your target building was here. The Delta Force, which we have the seal of here, was supposed to go in there. When they went in, they weren't going to go in without some help along their perimeters.

Let's give you a sense of exactly where the ranger helicopters were supposed to land and did. The blue stars indicate where four Blackhawks didn't land, but at least roped down a complement of rangers. Keni, you were on this chalk: The idea to form a perimeter so that the Delta Force could go if there. Meanwhile, there was a convoy of armored vehicles that was going to take Aideed away after he was going to be arrested. Where did things go wrong?

THOMAS: The mission was going smoothly. We went into get whoever we thought might be in there. We got the prisoners, got them out, got them on the five tons -- they were ex-filling them. When the mission went wrong was when the first helicopter got shot down. It became a different mission.

O'BRIEN: Rocket-propelled grenades are what was used. There were actually two helicopters that went down, seen here on this diagram. When that happened, that drastically changed your strategy. What did rangers on the ground have to do? What did the Delta Force have to do in order to compensate for the loss of those two choppers?

THOMAS: Well, we didn't have to compensate for the loss of choppers. That was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) up to the pilots to replace the birds that were in the air. Our deal was to get to them and to secure site. We had a helicopter going down a couple of weeks before, from the 101st, and the crew had just been desecrated by the people who came and cannibalized, and we didn't want that to happen to our boys, plus we are not going to leave somebody hanging out there. It was what you would do if you saw a car wreck and someone hurt; you would run to them and try to help them. That's what we ended up doing on the ground. It was about a four-block run.

O'BRIEN: Let's take a look at some of the images, which are haunting images which we all remember from that era. Some of them are very dramatic; in one case, a body was actually dragged through the streets. This is some of the wreckage of the Blackhawk. What in your mind were the lessons learned for the military in all of this, and do you think these are lessons that are being remembered right now as special operations gets involved in yet another manhunt?

THOMAS: I would hope that definitely. Lessons from a training standpoint, at my level, I can say that the rangers, the boys, are out there, and they are training for contingencies where a helicopter might go down and it was unexpected. They'll be doing a mission, and they get a word, hey, you lost a bird, let's go secure it. I know that the training has incorporated some of the things we've learned. It's actually incorporated some of the equipment that we felt we could have used on our person. As opposed to big military armor, I'm talking about small weapons equipment.

O'BRIEN: But the bottom line is going after a single person in a big city or a mountainous country, like Afghanistan, is a challenging thing for any military unit, as elite as the rangers may be.

THOMAS: Absolutely. From a policy standpoint, yes, I would say that that's a huge, huge undertaking. We were asked to go in and find one man in a city the size of Atlanta, and it was a lot harder than we initially thought.

O'BRIEN: Keni Thomas, member of the rangers, who was there eight years ago in Mogadishu. Thanks for your insights. We will have you back later. We'll talk about some of the lessons and how that might be playing out as this engagement in and around Afghanistan continues.

We invite you to check out more about the Blackhawk helicopter and other aspects of special forces. That's at cnn.com. And as Paula well knows, the AOL Keyword is "CNN."

ZAHN: "CNN"! I memorized that from earlier.

Miles, the question I have for you is when you go home, do you have the distinct need to go find a road map, pull it out, and stand next to it.

O'BRIEN: I put the maps with my kids and point to them and press buttons all the time. It's kind of a busman's holiday, you might say.

ZAHN: But you do it so well.

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

ZAHN: Actually, that was fascinating to hear. Thanks so much.

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