From Marine to warlord

Times Staff Writer

The Planning Department clerk from West Covina was mapping bike routes and San Bernardino Freeway overpasses when two U.S. Marines drove up in a white Chevrolet and took him away.

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.

"Hell is coming," he recalled thinking before turning off the TV in disgust.

Perhaps no one in the world was more conflicted than Aidid, a Somalian immigrant who settled in Southern California as 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.

"I felt almost as if I could have been in that conflict and died," he said.

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.

"People say to me: 'You are our connection to the world. You understand that world. Be that bridge,' " he said.

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.

"He's a lightweight," said Ken Menkhaus, Somalia scholar at Davidson College in North Carolina. "He's never had the gravitas of his father."

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.

"He's fresh and young and doesn't have a black record," said Abdirasak Farah Ahmed, a taxi driver from Aidid's clan. "He was the main one who got rid of the warlords. He is the only one who can unite the people."

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.

He can dance and feast in a cow field during an all-night clan festival, but still retains some of his old military habits, such as jotting down tasks and thoughts in a small notebook. He speaks so rapidly at times, for example rattling off the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," that it seems his mouth can scarcely keep pace with his brain.

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.

"We moved into exile so my father could do the opposition work he had to do," Aidid said. When he graduated from Covina High School, he said, joining the Marines was a natural choice. "I come from a military family," he said. "My hero was my father. I felt I must do something for my new country." His interest in science and math led him to specialize in computers and programming, studying the inner workings of MX missiles and artillery.

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.

"It was the hardest decision," he said. "My life [in the U.S.] was set. I knew that system. I didn't know anything about Somalia." Ultimately, he said, he felt obliged to fulfill a promise to his father to one day take over.

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.

"My father was a general," he said. "He did things by action. I reversed. I flipped the coin. I did things through reconciliation."

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.

"Sometimes a lion delivers a cat," said one Somalian clan leader, drawing a disparaging comparison between father and son.

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.

"He's a criminal," said Abdulaziz Mohamed Omar, 22, who said he lost three cousins to Aidid's fighters.

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

"We didn't remove Siad Barre to become another dictator," he said.

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

"The objective was to create a democratic society, to reconcile with warlords and put them into parliament," he said. "And that strategy worked."

Experts say Aidid's version of history is a bit revisionist.

"His father, and to some extent the son, contributed to the instability and chaos in Somalia," said Ted Dagne, analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

Aidid said his standing in Somalian politics stems from popular support. "We survived here for so many years because we are with the people and their hearts," he said.

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."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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