CIA Training of Islamists Haunts GIs in Iraq

Commentary, Peter Dale Scott,

Pacific News Service, Nov 26, 2003

Editor's Note: A technique to shoot down helicopters that CIA operatives taught to mujahideen and Arab Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980s is being used in guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

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).
[1] 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).[2]

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."[3] 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."[4]

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.
[5] This served as the main American recruiting center for the network that after the war became known as al Qaeda.[6]

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 an! d 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."
[7] 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.[8] 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. Army 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.


[1] Los Angeles Times, 11/19/03; Africa Cape Times, 11/16/03.

[2] Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999), 110.

[3] Bergen, Holy War, 82.

[4] Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War, 335.

[5] Independent, 11/1/98.

[6] Michael Springman, the former head of the American visa bureau in Jeddah, told the BBC that since 1987 the CIA had been illicitly issuing visas to unqualified applicants from the Middle East and bringing them to the US for training in terrorism for the Afghan war in collaboration with Bin Laden. In his words, “In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high level State Dept officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants. These were, essentially, people who had no ties either to Saudi Arabia or to their own country. I complained bitterly at the time there. I returned to the US, I complained to the State Dept here, to the General Accounting Office, to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the Inspector General's office. I was met with silence. What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits, rounded up by Osama Bin Laden, to the US for terrorist training by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against the then-Soviets” (BBC, November 6 2001;

[7] Globe and Mail, 11/22/01. Cf. San Francisco Chronicle, 11/4/01: `Mohamed "clearly was a double agent," Larry C. Johnson, a former deputy director in the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism and a onetime CIA employee, said in an interview. Johnson said the CIA had found Mohamed unreliable and severed its relationship with him shortly after Mohamed approached the agency in 1984. Johnson faulted the FBI for later using Mohamed as an informant, saying the bureau should have recognized that the man was a high-ranking terrorist, deeply involved in plotting violence against the United States and its allies. "It's possible that the FBI thought they had control of him and were trying to use him, but what's clear is that they did not have control," Johnson said. "The FBI assumed he was their source, but his loyalties lay elsewhere."’

[8] In his statement “Mohamed admitted he had trained some of the persons in New York who had been responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.” (Statement of Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois; U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, “Protecting Our National Security from Terrorist Attacks,”  10/21/03,


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