From Marine to warlord: The strange journey of Hussein Farrah Aidid
By Ron Kampeas, Associated Press, 02/11/02
WASHINGTON -- For Hussein Farrah, the summer of 1996 started with a future rooted in the Los Angeles suburbs: a job with a local council plotting roads, married life interrupted by stints with Marine reserves buddies.
By October, he had added "Aidid" to his name and had led thousands of followers in a Somali stadium celebrating the killings three years earlier of 18 American soldiers hunting his father.
Hussein Farrah Aidid is the son of Mohamed Aidid, the warlord who directed the October 1993 uprising against American forces -- and of a mother who brought him to the United States at age 17.
Today, he is a warlord himself, in exile in Ethiopia. He hopes to return to his Somali clan and is inviting the United States to come back, too, this time to root out suspected al-Qaida leaders in his homeland.
"I know what the U.S. wants, and I know what these terrorists can do," he says. U.S. officials recently warned Congress that the influence of terrorists may be spreading in Somalia and Washington cannot ignore them.
The younger Aidid once wanted much of what America had to offer. He's a naturalized U.S. citizen who reveled in the good life in California and in the days of duty and nights out with Marine buddies.
Those old friends recall an easygoing pal who jokingly called himself "the prince" to remind them of his father's prominent position back in Somalia.
"He would say `Gain way, gain way, here comes the prince,"' said Jesse Perez, who served with him in the Marines. "We said, `Shut up Farrah."'
These days, U.S. officials don't quite know what to make of their ex-Marine. They remember his harsh rhetoric at the stadium, when Aidid had returned to Somalia after his father's death to lay claim to the clan. "A victorious national day for the Somalis," he called the 1993 attack. "A gloomy day for the aggressors."
Despite that, U.S. officials don't think he's a foe. But they're not sure he's a friend. It's a dilemma that is emblematic of Somalia's chaos.
Some of his fellow Marines believe that if it comes down to divided loyalties, the culture of the corps will transcend that of the clan.
"Once a Marine develops a loyalty to the corps, it never fades," said Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, who was his commander.
"His ties to the corps would ultimately win out," said James Neal, who spent long days with him in a Marine Humvee and long nights with him drinking, laughing and dining out.
As Aidid himself put it, "Once a Marine, always a Marine."
Whatever his motives, Aidid's life bridges the two nations like no other: a dizzying trajectory from a civil engineer in the tree-lined refuge of southern California's suburbs to warlord.
Aidid enlisted in the Marines in 1987 and became a U.S. citizen four years later because it was a prerequisite to becoming an officer. His commanders helped him rush through the swearing-in before he shipped out to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was on Gulf War alert for months.
"The Marines organized an escort back from the swearing-in," Neal said. "We were sitting on the tarmac at LAX waiting for him."
Aidid never became an officer, but he stuck with the corps. He was happy to join the initial Somalia mission in January 1993 and immediately forthcoming about who his father was. At the time, he went by his grandfather's name, Farrah, a Somali tradition.
"I was looking at a young corporal who wanted to do good things for his native country," recalled Johnston, who chose Aidid for the mission because he was the only Marine who spoke Somali.
Aidid stayed three weeks, until Somali interpreters recruited from U.S. colleges arrived. This was before U.S. forces' relations with his father deteriorated into warfare.
During his time there, Aidid visited a few times with his father -- with Johnston's permission -- and would argue the warlord's case with journalists.
Johnston never doubted Aidid's loyalty to the Marines and was not surprised to learn later that he had returned to reserve duty even after his father became America's enemy.
The younger Aidid exulted in all things American.
He enjoyed discussing the markets, and had three financial dailies delivered to Camp Lejeune. "His favorite was The Wall Street Journal," Perez said.
Back in Los Angeles, where Perez and Aidid double dated, his preferred dining was Chinese. He asked Perez for pointers on wooing Hispanic women and enjoyed clubbing in Tijuana, Mexico. He eventually married a Somali woman he met in the Los Angeles area.
Nothing suggested plans for a life outside the United States. He had arrived in California with his divorced mother and four siblings in 1980.
Graduating from high school a year later, he worked at a gas station to pay for night school and in 1985 got a job in the engineering department of a Los Angeles suburb, West Covina. He studied part time, earning a degree in civil engineering.
"His plan was to get married and get a full-time job here," said Naresh Palkhiwala, a colleague. "He was a good engineer, hardworking and very mellow."
Everyone noted his easygoing demeanor, his broad smile and his relaxed gait -- although he would bristle when asked to do menial tasks.
Aidid never discussed the 1993 killings.
That all changed on July 24, 1996. His father was critically wounded in a battle with a rival warlord. The grim son prepared to go back to Somalia.
"He wasn't the same," said Perez, who saw him in his final days in Los Angeles. "He didn't smile, he didn't laugh, he said his whole lifestyle would change. He said he was scared, he started talking about dramatic changes."
On Aug. 1, his father died on the operating table. His son took over the clan.
At first, America was on his mind.
"I miss the fun times and normal life," Aidid told the AP in 1997. He said he missed his family, too.
He pledged to rebuild Somalia, yet his henchmen never abandoned his father's less savory practices, including extortion and drug-dealing. He carried his father's walking stick with an engraved silver handle. U.S.-minted ideals found little oxygen in Mogadishu's mire.
He contacted his former friends only once: In the summer of 1997, he used currency he printed (and that rival clans mocked) to pay off a standing $10 bet he had with Perez against the Oakland Raiders.
"I still have those bills," Perez said. "I can't exactly spend them."
Aidid is on the outs with the shaky new Somali government. But he is comfortable in his role, easily launching into his father's old rhetoric against "foreign interests" and "terrorist" rivals.
But now, his aim is to get U.S. forces -- and himself -- back in.