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CIA Training of Islamists Haunts GIs in Iraq

By PETER DALE SCOTT Pacific News Service
Tuesday December 02, 2003

The recent downing of U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq is yet another example of how the aid supplied by the CIA to Islamist terrorists in the 1980s has contributed to the escalation and spread of terrorism everywhere in the world.  

At least two of the U.S. Black Hawk helicopters that crashed in Iraq recently were brought down by the same sophisticated technique—by taking out the ship's vulnerable tail rotor with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). As right-wing columnists and web sites have been quick to point out, this is exactly the technique that brought down three Black Hawks in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. Three weeks after this devastating attack, the United States pulled out of Somalia, an event Osama bin Laden has cited as proof that America can be defeated.  

But no one to date has pointed out what Mark Bowden, author of the best account of that battle, Black Hawk Down, reported: that the Somalis on the ground had been trained by Arabs who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. As Bowden wrote, it was these Arabs who taught that the best way to bring down a helicopter with an RPG was to shoot for the tail rotor (which keeps the helicopter from spinning by countering torque from its main rotor).  

We now know that the Arab trainers of the Somalis were members of al Qaeda.  

In his book on al Qaeda, Holy War, Peter Bergen said of the Mogadishu battle: “A U.S. official told me that the skills involved in shooting down those helicopters were not skills that the Somalis could have learned on their own.” In other words, the training that the United States supplied to Islamists in the Afghan War in the 1980s, when the emphasis was on bringing down Soviet helicopters, is still coming back to haunt the United States today. That training, according to author George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson's War, about the CIA's arming of Islamists during the Afghan War, even included “urban terror, with instruction in car bombings, bicycle bombings, camel bombings, and assassination.” 

One trainer of the Somalis, Egyptian-born Ali Mohamed, was also a veteran of U.S. Special Forces and the CIA. While allegedly still on the U.S. payroll, Mohamed had been recruiting and training Arabs for the U.S.-supported Afghan War, at the al-Kifah Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. This served as the main American recruiting center for the network that after the war became known as al Qaeda.  

In 1993, the year of Mogadishu, Mohamed was picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada in the company of an al Qaeda terrorist. Almost certainly he would have been arrested; but Mohamed insisted that the RCMP put in a phone call to his FBI handler. The call quickly secured his release.  

The Toronto daily Globe and Mail later concluded that Mohamed "was working with U.S. counter-terrorist agents, playing a double or triple game, when he was questioned in 1993." Mohamed, who was implicated along with al-Kifah veterans in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was arrested again after the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Escaping trial by a negotiated plea, he was in a U.S. prison as late as 2001. His service to al Qaeda is clear and admitted; it is not clear that he has done anything to benefit the United States.  

It is now over 10 years since the first U.S. Black Hawks were downed by hits on the tail rotor with RPGs. U.S. pilots have developed countermeasures, by quickly cutting off their engines to avoid a fatal spin. But in March 2002 the same technique was used again effectively by al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. In Operation Anaconda of that month, RPGs, by hitting the tail rotors, incapacitated several U.S. Air Force Apache helicopters.  

It is of course easy in retrospect to challenge the wisdom of having imparted such skills to jihad-waging Islamists. These were extremists who, even at the time, made it clear they despised the West almost as much as they did the Soviet Union. But what remains is the dangerous system whereby small numbers of policy-makers, acting at the very highest levels of secrecy, are able to make ill-considered decisions that will have long-term, tragic effects worldwide.  


Peter Dale Scott is a former Canadian diplomat and professor of English at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Drugs, Oil and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).