August 12, 1996
How a U.S. Marine Became a Warlord in Somalia
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
OGADISHU, Somalia -- One of the many oddities in this battered capital is that a son of Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the Somali faction leader who humiliated the United States in 1993, was a naturalized American citizen, not to mention a U.S. Marine.
But that bizarre footnote took on a new dimension last weekend after the general died of gunshot wounds he had received in battle. His clan elders, meeting behind closed doors, selected the same 33-year-old son, Hussein Mohamed Farrah, to become the new president of Aidid's self-proclaimed republic.
It was a strange choice, politicians here say. Until a year ago, Farrah was living an obscure and mundane life in a Los Angeles suburb, going to school part time and working as a clerk in the West Covina engineering department for $9 a hour. The closest he had come to his father's way of life was when he served as a corporal in the Marine reserves.
Now Somalis throughout this war-weary country are waiting uneasily to see how the young warlord with the American accent will change the balance of power among the clan leaders who have carved Somalia up into what amounts to feudal kingdoms.
On the ruined streets of Mogadishu, the same questions were heard on many lips last week: Is the son a copy of his father -- the ambitious and ruthless general who wanted to subdue the entire country by force? Or will he be a peacemaker, a man capable of ending the civil war that has scourged this harsh desert land since 1990?
Any hope that Farrah's appointment would soon lead to a cease-fire here evaporated this weekend as his forces clashed outside the city in heavy fighting with militia members loyal to Mohamed Ali Mahdi, whose Abgal clan controls the north end of the capital. A counteroffensive by Farrah's followers was meant to push back Ali Mahdi's troops, who had cut off Farrah's section of town from a major airport.
With his white shirt and tie and his clean-cut hair style, Farrah certainly looks and sounds more like an American college student than a hardened Somali faction leader. Speaking at a memorial service in Mogadishu stadium for his father on Friday, he seemed wooden and ill at ease in front of the microphones, like a man caught unwillingly in the spotlight. He spoke only five minutes, avoiding politics.
"I did not come here to address you or give a political speech," he told more than 20,000 people crammed into the stadium. "I just came here, as we all did, to bless my father."
Most Somali leaders said they were stunned when Farrah was named to lead the powerful Habr Gedir clan, which dominates a political faction that controls much of the capital and the south-central part of the country.
"It surprised even us," said Ali Mahdi, who controls north Mogadishu and who was Aidid's major rival for the Somali presidency. "It's impossible -- 34 or 33 years old and inexperienced. We don't know how he can lead the country."
Having spent most of his adult life in the United States, Farrah is a newcomer to Somalia's tortured political stage, political analysts here say. He is also young and politically inexperienced, in a culture that reveres its elders and takes pride in the cleverness of its politicians.
His naivete was evident last week. In his first speech, he promised to crush his enemies at home and abroad. In another speech the next day, he professed to want peace.
He also embarrassed some of his father's closest political allies when he told reporters that he would personally intervene in the case of an Australian pilot who has been jailed since June for landing illegally in Somalia. In recent days, his advisers have kept him away from journalists. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Perhaps more important for many Somalis, however, are questions about his split loyalties. When asked by reporters about his life in the United States, he insists he is still an American citizen and a proud member of the Marine reserves.
But in public addresses last week, the young leader took pains to sound like his father, saying he would continue to "pacify" Somalia through warfare and adopting his father's position that most of Somalia's problems stem from foreign interference.
In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Farrah summed himself up this way: "Professionally, I think as an American. But I feel like a Somali."
Farrah was born on Aug. 16, 1962, in the Somali town of Belet Uen. He was the second son of Asli Dhubad, the first of Aidid's four wives. At age 14, he immigrated to Southern California with five siblings and his mother, who had separated from his father.
Farrah remained in the United States for 16 years. He attended Covina High School, near Los Angeles, graduating in 1981. Six years later, in April 1987, he joined the Marines, and was trained as an artilleryman.
"I always wanted to be a Marine," he told The Associated Press. "You know how it is watching Marine soldiers. I'm proud of my background and military discipline. Once a Marine, always a Marine."
After basic training in the summer of 1987, he skipped active service and went straight into the reserves. He was assigned as a corporal to Battery B, 14th Marine Regiment, in Pico Rivera, Calif.
Around the same time, he began taking courses at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. Three years later, he also started studying civil engineering at the University of California at Long Beach. He has not earned a degree from either school.
On Dec. 12 1992, Farrah was sitting in an engineering class when two Marine officers knocked on the door, interrupting the lecture, and said he was urgently needed in Somalia. The United States had just sent 28,000 troops to safeguard U.N. shipments of food to the starving country. The Marines needed translators.
For three weeks, Farrah served as an interpreter and a liaison between the American forces and his father. But the relationship between the United Nations and Aidid quickly soured, and the Marines sent Farrah home on Jan. 5.
By mid-1993, Aidid had become evil personified in the United States and at the United Nations. In addition to diverting food aid and relief supplies, his fighters had ambushed 24 Pakistani peacekeepers. The United Nations placed a $25,000 price on his head. Eighteen American troops were killed trying to capture him. Americans were shocked by the image of the body of one American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Back in California, Farrah had resumed his life as a weekend warrior and a struggling engineering student. He also went back to work in the West Covina engineering department, updating water maps, counting cars in traffic, working on computers.
Last July, shortly after doing his two-week summer stint as a Marine at Fort Sill, Okla., he suddenly returned to Somalia with his wife and small son. He notified his commanders that he would miss drills for three months because he would be traveling outside the United States.
His life was about to change dramatically. He did not return to school in the fall. Instead, his father took him under his wing and began grooming him for a top spot in the clan's military organization, diplomats and U.N. officials said.
When Aidid's forces captured Baidoa in south-central Somalia in September, Farrah was given a large role commanding the forces and got his first taste of combat, diplomats said. Since then, he has been in command of all military operations around Baidoa, a dirty job of hunting down guerrillas who resisted the invasion.
Then, an unusual confluence of events propelled Farrah into his father's shoes. On Aug. 2, it was announced that Aidid had died after being hit by three bullets during a battle for a neighborhood in southern Mogadishu.
Two days later, the clan elders and other politicians in Aidid's coalition government were meeting frantically to find a successor. Though 16 factions make up the Aidid coalition, the Habr Gedir contribute most of the fighters and consider the presidency their property. Only a Habr Gedir could assume power without risking a revolt from the 4,000 militia members loyal to Aidid. The problem was that the families in the Habr Gedir clan were badly split and could not agree on a candidate.
Farrah's appointment was a compromise, political analysts said. Though he was new to Somalia, Farrah was popular among the militia members and had proven he could find resources for the war effort. As an outsider riding his father's popularity, he was palatable to all the families among the Habr Gedir as well as to Aidid's allies from other clans.
"I think in order to keep the militia in line they broke with tradition and chose a young man and put him in the seat," said Wayne Long, a U.N. official in charge of security for the organization's remaining workers in Somalia.
Many Somalis in the capital said they were elated that Farrah had come to power. Aidid was proud of having driven the United Nations out of Somalia, but despite his boasts about expelling colonialists, most high-paying jobs disappeared when the last U.N. troops pulled out last year. Some Somalis hope that Farrah's background will help him mend fences with the West.
"There were some people who hated Aidid but are now hopeful," said Osman Hassan Weheliye, a freelance journalist here. "Some think that because he is educated in America, he will be more open to the international community."
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Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company