From Marine To Warlord

Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 2007

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The night before, on Oct. 3, 1993, Hussein Mohammed Aidid had watched in horror as television conveyed images of a disastrous U.S. military mission against a Mogadishu warlord. After two Black Hawk helicopters crashed, an ensuing gunfight left 18 American servicemen dead, and rioting Somalis dragged some of the bodies through the streets.

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Perhaps no one in the world was more conflicted than Aidid, a Somalian immigrant who settled in Southern California as a teenager. He had served with the U.S. Marines in Mogadishu for four months that year as part of Operation Restore Hope, and the death of the U.S. Rangers “was like a black hole inside of me.”

But his father, Mohammed Farah Aidid, was the warlord the U.S. was targeting.

The next morning, at the U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton, a commander asked Aidid to send a letter to his father, pleading for the release of a captured U.S. pilot. He said he didn’t hesitate.

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Three years later, however, Aidid would abandon his job and his military ties in America to return home after the death of his father. Aidid assumed control of his father’s militia, inherited a vast swath of territory and became one of Somalia’s most powerful warlords himself.

Today Aidid, 44, is trying to change mantles again. As interior minister for Somalia’s struggling transitional government, he is the man charged with restoring security to Mogadishu. After routing Islamic fighters from southern Somalia last month with the help of Ethiopian troops, the government is trying to bring order after 16 years of chaos and clan wars.

Described by critics as a wily opportunist who switches alliances easily, Aidid makes no secret of his desire to one day become president. Despite anger by some Somalis over the recent U.S. airstrike against suspected terrorists in the country, Aidid said his U.S. background is an asset, not a liability.

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Over the years, Aidid has struggled to emerge from the shadow of his famous father. Both are still vilified in some parts of the country for using ruthless tactics to crush opponents. Even political allies groan at his occasional blunders, such as his recent suggestion that Somalia and archrival Ethiopia might one day merge into a single country.

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But even those who scoff at Aidid as immature or unstable warn against counting him out. His family and clan connections, encyclopedic memory and track record for political survival guarantee his spot as a power broker in Somalia’s future.

Supporters praise Aidid as the first to make the transition from warlord to politician. They say his push for reconciliation, including forgiving the clan that killed his father in a 1996 battle and giving up land for peace, fostered an environment that enabled the current government to form.

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In the sitting room of his rented Mogadishu house, Aidid remains a clash of U.S. and African cultures. He wears a dark Western suit and power tie, with bare feet. He acknowledges two wives and seven children, though an aide counts four wives and 20 kids.

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Aidid enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as son of a military guard until his father was jailed in 1969 on suspicion of plotting a coup against then-dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. In 1975, Aidid’s father was released from prison and rejoined the resistance. He sent Aidid to the U.S. His mother and other siblings would soon join.

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After serving in Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Aidid’s unit was tagged for a four-month mission in Mogadishu to deliver food and humanitarian support. Siad Barre had been ousted in 1991 in a revolution led by Aidid’s father, but his clan had become engaged in a power struggle that was destabilizing the country.

It was a personal journey for Aidid, who briefly reunited with the father he had not seen for several years. After Aidid and his unit returned to California in March 1993, his father’s relations with the United States unraveled further, and Somalia unraveled with them.

During the following two years, Aidid resumed his old life, living in Diamond Bar, driving around in a Mazda RX-7 and eating at Chinese restaurants. When he returned to Somalia in 1995 to introduce his fiancee, a Somali also living in California, to his father, the elder Aidid tapped his son to be his successor.

Just one year later, Mohammed Aidid was fatally shot in battle. The clan elected the younger Aidid to take over as head of a coalition of clans and warlords known as the Somali National Alliance.

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Aidid reconnected with his Somalian roots. He started another family in Mogadishu. He began referring to the Oct. 3 U.S. helicopter crash as a “gloomy day for the aggressors” and a “victorious day for the Somalis.” But Aidid said he never developed the taste for the life of a warlord.

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Analysts confirm that the younger Aidid was among the first to seek reconciliation in Mogadishu, though they noted that at times he also boycotted peace conferences. He reached a power-sharing agreement with other Mogadishu warlords. But fighting soon resumed. And Aidid, who began with a huge expanse of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, Baidoa and Kismayo, had retrenched by 1999 into Mogadishu’s presidential palace, a small but symbolic holding.

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Aidid continued his father’s bloody campaign to hold Baidoa against an Ethiopian-supported resistance. Thousands of civilians were killed in the fighting, and Aidid’s militia was accused of human rights abuses, such as killing the wives of rebels and shooting residents lined up for food.

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Aidid blamed the violence on Baidoa’s rebels and defended his record. His goal, he said, was never to control land or make money.

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He said he started a process that eventually weakened warlords, including himself, and brought all sides to the negotiating table.

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Aidid said he hoped to extend reconciliation to the U.S. by forging a closer relationship with the country he said offered him so much. Memories of Oct. 3 are never far from his mind, and he said he’d like to build a memorial in Mogadishu for those who died that day. As a reminder, Aidid said he still holds the dog tags of the captured U.S. pilot he helped release.

“I’m keeping them for him,” Aidid said. “I want to give them to him when I see him.”

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