Article by Peter Maass

The Accidental Warlord

Talk  |  December 2000
Hussein Aideed was counting potholes in Southern California when he was drafted to replace his father as leader of one of Somalia’s most feared militias. As Aideed is learning, life as a tribal chieftain isn’t what it used to be.

It is nearly lunchtime, and the phone rings.

A distant voice announces, “This is a call from His Excellency Hussein Aideed.”

I wait to be put through to His Excellency, whom I have been trying to reach for several weeks now. This has not been easy, because Hussein Aideed is a warlord in Somalia, and there have been reports of fighting around his headquarters; his phone lines have been dead and there have been rumors that he is too.

Aideed is alive, though he has apparently been reduced to placing his own phone calls; it turns out I am already talking to His Excellency. He says he would be willing to receive me in Mogadishu, but that he has a request. “Please bring me some magazines,” he asks. “Time. Also Fortune.”

He inquires about the presidential election. How is George W. Bush doing? Aideed is very interested in George W. Bush.

“I am a registered Republican,” he explains. “Did you know that?”

There are many types of warlords on the planet, but there is none like Hussein Aideed, who likes to dance the tango and the cha-cha and until four years ago was a public works clerk in West Covina, California, and a corporal in the Marine Corps Reserves. He had been sent to America in 1978, at the age of 16, by his father, General Mohammed Farah Aideed, who was then on his way to becoming the most powerful warlord in Somalia. When his father was killed, in 1996, Aideed junior returned to Somalia to take over the family business, which if it were a commercial enterprise could be described as undergoing a painful restructuring, beset by cutthroat competitors.

“Tell your friends and colleagues not to worry,” Aideed says, of a country so chaotic that Osama bin Laden is rumored to have considered moving his headquarters there, only to bail after deciding it wasn’t safe. “Tell them that you are just visiting another American in Africa.”

We talk some more about politics in America, then about politics in Africa, and this goes on for a good half hour, during which I come to the improbable conclusion that a warlord in Mogadishu may have more time on his hands than a freelance writer in New York. As the conversation nears its end he reminds me to bring him the magazines. I promise to bring many magazines. “Thank you, my brother,” says the reluctant warlord.

A week later Hussein Aideed and I are rumbling through Mogadishu in his Toyota Land Cruiser. We are traveling in traditional warlord fashion, which means the Land Cruiser is sandwiched between several “technicals”: trucks and pickups customized for urban warfare. One of them carries, in its flatbed, an anti-aircraft gun, which is handy in a city because it can shoot through walls. The technicals also carry a few dozen militiamen equipped with don’t-fuck-with-us stares and an arsenal of personal weapons to make sure you get the point. These bodyguards—I use the term loosely—are fond of chewing qat, a narcotic leaf that keeps them in a hopped-up, trigger-happy state.

It was men and boys like these, under the leadership of Aideed’s father, who humiliated the United States military in 1993 and changed the course of U.S. foreign policy. At that time Somalia was beset by anarchy and famine, so the United States spearheaded what many call the first humanitarian intervention of the post-Cold War era.

The mission began unraveling when 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in an ambush that was blamed on the elder Aideed’s militia. The UN essentially declared war on him. wanted posters, dropped like confetti from UN helicopters, announced a reward for his capture. In a masterful display of chutzpah, Aideed offered a $1 million reward for the capture of the top UN official in Somalia. President Clinton sent the elite Delta Force to Mogadishu; it gave Aideed the code name Yogi the Bear.

On 3, 1993, Delta Force soldiers, along with Army Rangers, choppered to a building where Aideed’s deputies were meeting. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and one of the pilots was captured. By the time the trapped U.S. soldiers were rescued the next morning, 18 of them had been killed; television viewers watched, repeatedly, the horrifying videotape of an American corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

The United States military, a $280 billion-a-year outfit, had been humiliated by a mob of doped-up gunmen. The Clinton administration had learned its lesson. When genocide got under way in Rwanda a year later, the White House not only refused to send U.S. troops there, it stood in the way of the United Nations reinforcing the few peacekeepers it had on the ground. When the U.S. joined the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, the operational credo was quite simple: Not a single American soldier will die.

Somalia quickly fell off the map. This becomes clear as soon as I hit the streets of Mogadishu with Hussein Aideed. Beside the road are piles of garbage as large as houses. The streets are covered in sand and weeds. Most cars look like casualties from a demolition derby. Aideed, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and brown loafers, sits next to me in the Land Cruiser—the same one his father used—and points out noteworthy sights.

“This is the house where I grew up,” he says, gesturing at a stucco home that is only slightly ruined—in contrast to the mostly ruined houses nearby. He reminds me that in 1969 his father, then a fast-rising officer in the military, was jailed for six years on suspicion of plotting a coup against the country’s Marxist ruler, Mohammed Siad Barre, whose unpopularity was reflected in the nickname Big Mouth.

“I used to take food to him in the jail over there,” Aideed continues, pointing to a gutted building picked clean like a desert carcass—the condition of nearly every government building in town.

“This is the movie house where I used to go,” Aideed says, nodding toward a dilapidated cinema where he once watched Clint Eastwood pictures.

There are no stop signs, no police, no firemen, no public schools in Mogadishu—nothing that would hint at the existence of a controlling legal authority. The capital has been without a government for a decade, but it staggers along—there is DHL service, and cell phone coverage is quite good—under a system of regulated anarchy.

The regulators are warlords like Aideed—who doesn’t like the term. (“It is inaccurate,” he tells me.) The new millennium does not appear to promise much for his kind. Somalis are tired of fighting, and a recent peace conference has led to the creation of a new parliament and the naming of a president, Abdulkassim Salad Hassan, who is trying to gain enough support to do what no man has been able to do for the past decade: install a government amid the chaos.

A few years back the warlords could field thousands of fighters, but now their forces have dwindled to perhaps a few hundred fighters each. They are too weak to start new wars, but they can stand in the way of peace; one of President Hassan’s biggest obstacles is Aideed, who seems to be having a hard time deciding whether continued anarchy or peace would be better for his homeland. Most Somalis would prefer peace—and would like to see their warlords put on trial as war criminals.

Aideed and I are heading to a rally of his Habr Gedir clan. The rally is in an auditorium with gaping holes in its roof, and the sound system consists of a microphone and speaker hooked up to a car battery. There are several hundred people inside; when Aideed arrives the women start wailing and the men cheer. A dozen fighters form a glaring perimeter around Aideed, who sits on a plastic lawn chair at the front of the hall.

The meeting seems to have no end, as one person after another speaks, each prefacing his remarks with the salutation Allahu Akhbar: God is great. Aideed takes notes in a leather-bound planner he always carries, just as his father did. The last to speak, he keeps it brief. He talks about peace and reconciliation, which is what everyone talks about, but he derides the ongoing peace process, saying it will return to power the ministers from Big Mouth’s regime. The people listen and nod in agreement—unenthusiastically.

Aideed returns to his residence, an attractive whitewashed villa with bougainvillea blooming in the garden. A technical is parked outside, there are several guards at the gate, and doors lock behind him as he enters the living room. I mention that the clan meeting seemed rather long.

“That one was organized,” he says wearily. “If you go to the actual tribal meetings, it goes for hours and hours. If you give them half an hour and tell them, ‘Look, I have work to do,’ they will think it is an insult.

“It is not like the culture in America,” he continues. “They are not objective.”

America helped train Aideed for his current position. He had grown up in Somali military housing and as a teenager had spent a few months in the field with his father. But much of what he knows of warfare he learned as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, which he joined in 1987.

The situation in Somalia was deteriorating at that time. After leading the bid to topple Siad Barre, Aideed senior presided over the collapse of his country into factional conflict and famine. Things got so bad that he initially accepted the U.S.-led peacekeeping force that arrived in December 1992, a force that included a gung-ho translator named Hussein Aideed.

Corporal Aideed, making his first visit to his homeland in 14 years, lived as all Marines lived, eating MREs, drinking bottled water, and struggling to stay clean. Upon his arrival he hopped into a Humvee and drove to his father’s headquarters to say hello—only to be immediately disarmed by his father’s bodyguards.

His father, he says, was delighted to see him, pistol or no pistol. “He congratulated me on my position, on working for my country, the U.S. as well as Somalia.”

Corporal Aideed was pulled out in less than a month; the U.S. military brass realized it didn’t look good to employ the son of a warlord at HQ. But the corporal, who had earned two medals as a GI, made a good impression on his superiors.

“He was simply a good Marine,” Lieutenant General Robert Johnston, now retired, told me. “The notion that he would suddenly become a political warlord—I thought it was curious.”

Aideed returned to West Covina, where he counted potholes and kept tabs on the city’s water usage. He used his CompuServe account to troll the Internet for stories about Somalia, faxing the most interesting ones to his father. He was in West Covina when the U.S. military—his military—began trying to kill his father in concert with the UN. “It was an injustice and we knew it would fail,” Aideed told me.

Aideed returned to Somalia in 1995—after the UN had pulled out—so that his father could preside over Hussein’s first marriage. His father asked him to stay a while, to use his experience in the Marines to help reorganize his clan’s militia, which was trying to subdue Baidoa, a strategic city. Hussein subsequently led the militiamen who conquered Baidoa, wearing a Marine uniform into battle.

In July 1996, while driving to a battle in Mogadishu, his father was struck in the abdomen by a 12.7 mm bullet fired from an anti-aircraft gun. Hussein rushed back to Somalia from Kenya, where he had been doing a bit of diplomatic work for his pop. Roughly a week later, when General Aideed died, Hussein was on the front lines again, leading the militia.

The elders of the Habr Gedir clan had met in a panic to choose a new leader. The notion that they would select the kid from California seemed absurd. He was only 33 years old and he had spent all but a few months of his adult life in America. If one of the late general’s sons was to be chosen, Hassan, the eldest, seemed a better choice, as he was known to have a sharper mind and a few more years under his belt. But Hassan Aideed’s Somali roots weren’t deep either; he was, at the time, an aeronautical engineer in Orange County, California. Hussein was selected.

“I wanted to do what the old man wanted,” Aideed tells me. “I was not wanting, but seeing that the old man had not accomplished his mission, and he was hit by a bullet—it was a no-choice position but to accomplish and finish what he started.”

In West Covina, Aideed’s colleagues at city hall had no idea that the quiet fellow who diligently kept track of the water supply was the son of a warlord. “He was a good employee,” recalls Thomas Mayer, Aideed’s boss. “Did whatever you asked of him, did it well, but sort of kept to himself. He certainly did not impress us as a world leader.”

Hussein Aideed does not look the part, either. He has the smooth, youthful brown skin of Cassius Clay, and an innocent look on his face like an eager kid. He dresses in preppy outfits or stylish suits and sport jackets, and his shirts are pressed with military precision. His ties are made of silk.

“I cannot dress like Somalis,” he tells me. “I am not used to it. You are supposed to be an example, a model for the younger generation. They look at how their leader is.”

I have a chance to see the leader in action one day in his living room. A couple of Italians have come to discuss a business proposition: a fish factory, they say. Aideed, a shy man before he was nudged onto center stage, takes command of the conversation, alternating between rudimentary Italian and English as he discusses the perils of Islamic fundamentalism, among a dozen other topics—leaps of language and subject matter that leave his guests dizzy.

“I’ve been getting a headache trying to understand what this guy is talking about,” one of the Italians says, as Aideed adjourns upstairs with a Somali businessman who has accompanied the visitors. Aideed soon returns; the deal, whatever it concerns, appears to have been consummated.

Afterward I ask whether the meeting went well.

“With the European Union?” Aideed says. “The president is coming. These were just the delegates, up front, to check security. The president himself will come.”

One of the endearing things about Hussein Aideed is that he is an atrociously ineffective spinner of untruths. He so wants things to be true—he would love nothing more than to be visited by the president of the European Union—that he seems to feel that by saying something it might come to pass.

Warlords can dream too.

Aideed and I are on our way to a weed-choked patch of ground on the outskirts of town. Arriving at the end of the dirt road, Aideed steps out of the Land Cruiser and walks through a small gate, entering a yard in which several donkeys are foraging. A red shack with an aluminum sheet roof stands at the side.

Aideed pauses outside the shack, his bodyguards standing silently a few steps behind as their boss bows his head in prayer at the gravesite of his father. The remains are inside, encased in a modest, knee-high tomb made of white tiles. Aideed stands next to a Somali flag at one end of the tomb, closes his eyes, and says another prayer.

Afterward, outside a mosque, he talks of his plans to build a library at the spot, like an American presidential library, in honor of his father. “I feel very close to him here,” he says. “His spirit is with me. I come here every Friday and I come here every Sunday evening. It is the best of times. I have reconciliation with my father, one to one. I can send messages to him without saying words.”

I am told a few days later that Aideed downplayed the extent of his visits to the grave. He often sleeps overnight in the mosque, to be closer to his father—and, perhaps, further away from the morass of today’s Somalia.

It is a morass that has changed in some profound ways since his father’s time. In fact, a few weeks before my visit, Villa Somalia, Aideed’s political and military headquarters, was attacked. Aideed denies the assault took place, saying it is a rumor spread by his rivals. But when the boss is out of earshot, one of his aides confirms that the attackers were Aideed’s own militiamen, who were upset they had not been paid or provided with their regular allotment of qat.

When Aideed’s father was in the saddle, payment was not an issue. Men and boys flocked to fight on behalf of their clan. Those glory days have passed, as the gunmen have come to understand that such fighting was of little benefit to anyone but the warlords, who were living in delightful villas. And the businessmen who funneled money to the warlords, or were forced to do so, have come to realize, as the militias have decreased in size, that they can decline to make their tributes.

The result is that the warlords are in an exhausted stalemate. Violence continues in Mogadishu, though to a lesser extent than before; now it is related mostly to banditry. The last big battle, which took place in 1999, was a horrendous defeat for Aideed, who lost control of Baidoa.

Aideed’s problems are not confined to the military realm; he has significant woman trouble on his hands, too.

His first wife—four are permitted in Somali culture—lives in Southern California; she did not cheer her husband’s return to Mogadishu. Wife number two, who lives in Mogadishu and is the mother of Aideed’s 18-month-old daughter, did not get along with wife number three (now ex-wife number one), who lives in Cairo and gave birth several months ago to Aideed’s second daughter.

Aideed is, apparently, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. The dispute, he tells me, forced him to divorce wife number three.

“Is not a marriage problem,” he says, looking at his feet. “Is a between-the-women problem.”

Why divorce a woman who just gave birth to his child?

“I am very democratic,” Aideed says. “I still love her. I take care of the kid, the baby.”

But why the divorce?

“They are very young,” he offers. “Jealousy is normal for a woman. But there is not a big problem. If she likes to continue, we can have the marriage again. But this must come naturally.”

It occurs to me that Aideed has become the Rodney Dangerfield of warlords, beset not only by his rivals and his own militia but by his wives, too. Then he mentions that his wife in America is very independent.

“I don’t have independence,” he complains. “My life is run by the system here in Somalia.”

It is July 4, as it happens, and when I point this out Aideed nostalgically recounts the summer picnics he used to have in Southern California with his buddies from the Marines.

“I am very good at doing barbecues,” he says cheerfully. “Chicken and hamburgers and steak.”

I ask if he misses it.

“A lot,” he answers.

Several weeks later I am back in New York. It is a Friday, lunchtime. I call Aideed in Mogadishu. We exchange greetings, and I ask how things are going.

“Is beautiful, is calm,” he says.

I have come to expect optimism from him, even when things are not going well. On my last night in Mogadishu, Aideed’s men tussled with two rival groups, leaving a number of gunmen dead in the streets around my hotel. A few weeks later two of the city’s foreign aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen loyal to Osman Otto, a rival warlord.

“This is creating a signal that there is a problem still in Mogadishu,” Aideed says. He is working hard to fix the signal.

It is early evening there, and he has just taken off his tie, he tells me; as soon as his neighborhood’s generator is turned on—like everyone else, he has electricity only at night—he will tune in to CNN. The Republican convention has just ended, and he wants to hear more about Dick Cheney.

“I think as a vice president he will be superb,” Aideed says. “This year we are thinking it will be a very close race. This is what CNN was saying.”

He moves on, enthusiastically, to the freshest morsel of good news from Mogadishu.

“We now have the Internet! We are hoping it will start next month. I will encourage people to sign in, for them to learn.”

He hopes his fellow countrymen—Americans, in this case—will realize that things are looking up and help him rebuild Somalia.

“There are zero taxes here,” Aideed says. “I am sure there are a lot of computer geniuses who can do a lot here.”

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