Video Transcript

James K. Bishop—Mogadishu 1990:

It came to a point where keeping a number of Americans and their dependents around no longer made sense, in terms of their personal security and what they were able to accomplish.  So, with the consent of the department, I ordered a voluntary departure, and encouraged all of the families to send their dependents out of the country, which they all did.  Those of us who remained, we were 45 or so, as I recall, increasingly fell back on the embassy compound, to reside and conduct what business we could as the violence became more general within Mogadishu.  I had a meeting with the President and talked with him about what he saw as the future.  This was after his military forces had come back into Mogadishu, after having been trounced in a battle outside the capital.  He told me that it was in the hands of God.  We found ourselves in increased jeopardy when some Somali civilians entered our compound and fired at some of our personnel, who returned fire, killing several of them.  At that point I told Washington that we were going to need some extraordinary assistance, and suggested that parachutists be dropped into the compound.  We had a 180 acre compound, so there was lots of room to do that. Washington declined to do that.  They were afraid the parachutists might be shot as they tried to come down.  Instead two of the long range helicopters that were on the helicopter carrier were loaded up with Marines and Seals, and dispatched on a 350 mile over water journey to come into the compound to help us to defend it until the carrier itself could come close enough so that the shorter range helicopters could be used to evacuate a population which at that point had grown to some 240, as we had welcomed within the compound all of the private Americans and their immediate families who approached us for assistance, as well as the citizens of NATO countries – Canada and so forth.   


The Marines and the Seals came in shortly after dawn on January the 5th.   And I had an initial conversation with the Colonel Commanding, in which my intention was to sort out what the rules of engagement were.  I asked him what his instructions were, and he told me his instructions were to take his instruction from me.  I said that it sounded pretty good.  I told him that the rules of engagement were that the Marines were not to fire unless they were directly threatened, or they had my authorization. 

As the helicopters came in from the carrier to begin the evacuation of the remaining embassy personnel as well as those who found refuge with us, a Somali officer appeared at the gate of the compound with a radio in one hand and a grenade in the other – and said that he was going to call artillery fire into the compound to destroy the helicopters, because we had landed without the permission of the government.  The government had ceased to function sometime earlier.  I told the head of our local security detachment to escort the major in to meet with me.  And we then had an interesting 90 minute discussion – which started off with his demand that we end the evacuation, which obviously I wasn’t going to comply with, ran through his request that we evacuate him and his family, which I said I’d take up with the officers on the ship once I reached the ships myself.  And it was finally resolved when I agreed to give him the keys to my armored car in return for his leaving the compound.  By that time there were just two helicopters on the ground.  And I got into one of them together with the head of our local guard force and went out to the Guam, and sailed on to Oman and home.

As we left the compound, there were people coming over the walls.  And we had left our local employees with the keys to the warehouse, where we had commodities stored.  We hadn’t been able to pay them for over a month, because the banks had closed down.  I felt very badly about leaving them in these circumstances.  We had welcomed their families into the compound and we tried to protect them, but obviously with our departure we were no longer able to do that.  So we gave them the keys to the storehouse, and told them to divide the contents up among themselves.  But the folks who came over the wall decided that the way to open a warehouse door was with an RPG-7, and a shell hit the alcohol inside and everything burned down.

Personal Qualities

I had had a considerable amount of experience in crisis management.  I was in the Embassy in Beirut in 1967, when we were caught up in the mist of the Arab-Israeli conflict of that year.  And the Palestinian community went after the American community, when Nasser claimed falsely that the American and British air forces had been associated with the Israeli air force in the attacks on the Egyptian and other Arab air forces.  We evacuated 3,600 Americans in 33 hours and then I stayed behind with 25 others, including a dozen Marines, while we played hide and seek with the Palestinians for the next week or two until they had calmed down, and eventually life got back together.  I served in Niger, adjacent to Libya, at a time when the Libyans were engaged in terrorism directed against Americans, so we had to maintain a high level of preparedness.  From 1981 until 1987 I was deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, and it fell to my lot to chair the task forces which were established whenever a crisis broke out in Africa, so that I logged a lot of hours in the Operations Center as we went through evacuations of Americans as a results of coups d’etat in the Gambia, attempted coups in Liberia, coups in Somalia, coups in Sudan and so forth.  So I had had quite a bit of experience.  And immediately prior to serving in Somalia, I was ambassador to Liberia for three years, and in the final months of that assignment the country was engaged in a civil war as rebels invaded the country and ultimately made their way to Monrovia.

I had long been a student of leadership.  I had had an opportunity in the Foreign Service to be mentored by some people who had excellent leadership qualities.  And I have been a student of military and political history, and had focused in that reading on what the attributes of good leadership were.  And this was my third ambassadorial assignment, so I had the opportunity to try out some of the mentoring, to try out some of the book reading, in the operation with my colleagues in the field.


Try and lead as normal a life as possible.  To continue to eat regularly.  To get normal hours of sleep, if there aren’t too many interruptions by gunfire, and other disturbances in the middle of the night.  To continue to get some exercise, if possible.  To stay away from alcohol and anything else that might impair your judgment, as a crisis could arise at any moment and you want to be at a maximum stage of alertness on a continual basis.

In Mogadishu, I deliberately instituted a series of drills, to get people accustomed both procedurally and psychologically to the possibility that they would be involved in violence.  So we had the Marines conduct defensive drills using their arms, wearing their armor.  We had mass casualty drill, in which the embassy nurse practitioner and others who had medical training shared that with other members of the embassy community, so that we would be in a better position to assist those who might become victims of a disaster situation, if that arose.  And generally to get people accustomed to the idea that they were living in a dangerous environment.