Profile: How to turn a warmonger into a hero: General Aideed, top bad-guy on America's hit list

Saturday 17 July 1993 00:02 BST

AS DUSK fell on the first evening after the US Marines landed in Mogadishu, two Cobra gunships beat across the city and curled round above the residence of General Mohamed Farah Aideed. Their nose-cone cannons swivelled as the gunships dipped and circled around the house, creating a thundering gale. It was a prophetic if ambiguous gesture.

General Aideed lived in a gracious house in a large, walled compound in south Mogadishu. Across the street was the Conaco House, where Robert Oakley, the US Special Representative, had taken up residence the night before. He and his staff had arrived at the airstrip outside Mogadishu and been escorted by Aideed's fighters to the house where he was now protected by Aideed's guards. Aideed personally welcomed Oakley to Mogadishu. In the next compound Osman Hassan Ali Atto, Aideed's clansman, business fixer and adviser, was printing leaflets: 'USA is Friend - UN is Invader'.

Were the Cobras giving Oakley a good- night assurance that he was well protected or were they giving General Aideed a grandstand view of US military might, in case he decided to take them on? Had they known him better they would have known it would take more than that to cow him.

Aideed is a hard, intelligent soldier who suffered six years in prison - largely in solitary confinement - under President Siad Barre. A thick-set, cold-eyed man, Aideed is feared because of his explosive temper and domineering manner. Interviews with him are ranting monologues in which he is right and the rest of the world is wrong. He seems to regard questions as personal attacks and he exudes a mixture of paranoid self-righteousness and thuggish aggression.

He is reliably reported to have ordered the murder of several opponents. He also launched the war in Mogadishu against his rival, Ali Mahdi Mohammed, and the Abgal clan that has led to the deaths of thousands of women and children. His battle with fighters loyal to Siad Barre in western Somalia in 1991 and 1992 led to the famine in which tens of thousands died. He would have been President, feted in Washington and New York, if he had won the battle for Mogadishu.

As it was, that battle ended in stalemate and the US Marines arrived. Mr Oakley forced Ali Mahdi and Aideed to shake hands publicly as he beamed on as peace- maker (they had actually enjoyed a ceasefire for nine months previously). So friendly were the Americans to General Aideed and the other warlords when they first arrived that many Somalis who had suffered months of shelling and street battles with Aideed's fighters were appalled. They feared that the Americans were about to install him and the other warlords as the new government of Somalia.

It now appears that top priority for the US during the landings was to save American lives and if that meant warm handshakes with General Aideed, so be it. Disarmament was not on the US agenda then and Aideed was apparently told he could keep his weapons as long as his fighters did not shoot any Americans.

In the long run, however, unless Aideed could be persuaded to disarm and share power with all the other clan-based factions in Somalia, there was bound to be confrontation. Aideed comes from a small and traditionally weak clan. His successful rebellion against Siad Barre had extended the power of his clan far beyond its traditional area. Aideed was unwilling to give up politically what he had won by war. He agreed to disarm but did not.

THE problems between Aideed and the US began in February when Oakley promised Aideed they would not let General Hersi Morgan, Siad Barre's son- in-law, return to Kismayu. Until then, General Morgan had been the Americans' chief 'baddy' and the Marines had already attacked Morgan's positions in the port. The US Marine General, Robert Johnston, is said to have made Oakley retract that pledge. He saw Aideed as the long-term threat. Since then, as General Johnston was proved right and Aideed has fallen out with the US, General Morgan seems to have been rehabilitated.

When US gunships attacked Aideed's warehouse and his house last month, he held his fire but his radio continued to denounce the UN in Somalia. But when Pakistani troops approached his radio station on 5 June, ostensibly to look for weapons, his men took their revenge and 23 people were killed. A warrant was issued for Aideed's arrest and he became the UN's first Wanted Man.

General Mohammed Farah Aideed is typical of many soldiers from the southern hemisphere, trained in the military academies of the superpowers as part of the search for allies and global stability in the Cold War. Like many of them, he used his training and prodigious gifts of arms to make war on his own people.

Aideed was born in 1934 in the part of Somalia under Italian rule. His clan is Hawiye, his sub clan Habr Gadir, tough nomadic camel-keepers from the arid South-west. He joined the Italian-controlled army and in 1954 went to Italy to study at the Military Academy. After two years he was commissioned and then completed a police course. In 1958 Aideed was appointed chief of police in Mogadishu but, following another course in Rome, was appointed chief of staff of the Military Training Centre in Mogadishu. In 1963 he took a three-year course at the Soviet War Strategic Academy.

In 1969 Siad Barre, another Italian- trained soldier and policeman, seized power. Then, because Aideed was popular and effective in the army, Barre imprisoned him for six years without trial. He was released because his military abilities were desperately needed in the war with Ethiopia. This gave Aideed the chance to prove his reputation and his loyalty, so Barre made him a member of the Assembly and appointed him military administrator in the president's office. But President Barre never trusted him and had him dispatched to India as Ambassador.

When Somalia began to fall apart in 1988 Aideed was recalled, but instead he fled and helped to set up the United Somali Congress and built an anti-Barre alliance with other clan-based movements. He was elected chairman of the USC in 1990 and it fought its way to Mogadishu during the rest of the year. Apparently Aideed was usually in the front line. As his troops moved into Mogadishu they met resistance from the Abgal, the largest clan in the capital, led by Ali Mahdi. After a 10-month stand off, the war between them started in November 1991.

If the Americans had understood Somalia's clan structure they would have realised that Aideed was not simply a 'warlord' heading a gang of baddies. When they spoke of 'bringing him to trial', they forgot that the only courts operating in south Mogadishu are those appointed by General Aideed. They thought it would be easy to kill or capture him, but they were wrong. They tried to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut - and missed.

For more than six weeks Aideed has moved around Mogadishu in safe houses and the more gunship raids they have made on what they believe to be his headquarters, and the more Somali civilians they kill in the process, the more they are turning him into a hero.

There was a moment when the movement he leads, the United Somali Congress, the Habr Gadir elders and his allies in other clans might have sacrificed Aideed for peace. He had been in trouble with the 150-member USC central committee for some time. Many of them are middle class and want a bigger piece of the economic cake. Clan elders were angered by his failure to consult them. Many regarded him as arrogant and dismissive of traditional leaders. On 5 July a party meeting was scheduled, which had the chance to remove him. But on 30 June UN troops attacked an Aideed stronghold and fierce fighting in Mogadishu forced the USC to postpone the meeting. It also rallied support for Aideed. Anger about the deaths of Somalis at the hands of foreigners killed the move to dump him.

AIDEED is a skilful manipulator of the clan system. Before the Americans arrived he moved many of his heavy weapons to Gaalkacyo, about 500 miles north of Mogadishu. The road to Gaalkacyo, however, has since been controlled by a militia of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). At a conference in April, Aideed signed a ceasefire agreement with the SSDF militias and the road to Bossasso is now more or less open. UN participation in the peace conference was lukewarm because its forces are not present in that area, but the move has allowed him to bring heavy weapons back to Mogadishu and lets him to concentrate his fighters in Mogadishu and Kismayu.

He is also building an alliance with Islamic fundamentalists. They have presented an alternative focus for Somalis' loyalty outside the clan system. Lately he has begun to gather support among them by describing the UN as an American attempt to destroy Islam. This has also made the Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti and Pakistani forces with the UN less supportive of American attacks on Aideed.

Last Monday's attack on Digfer Hospital will further boost his position. The US claimed it was an Aideed control point and a conduit for arms. Aideed's supporters and others in Mogadishu say the house was a meeting place for clan elders, not all of them Aideed supporters, who were meeting to work out a common peaceful approach to the UN. What is certain is that the UN figure of 17 dead is wrong. The Red Cross has given a conservative estimate of 50 dead and Aideed supporters put the figure at 74.

Aideed is also gaining support among other clans because of the growing relationship between the Americans and Mohammed Abshir Musa, leader of a faction of the SSDF and allied generally with Ali Mahdi. Abshir was Chief of Police in the 1960s when he was reportedly a good friend of the current American envoy, Robert Gosende. There are allegations that Mohammed Abshir was working with the CIA, which is not unthinkable given the context.

The problem with Mohammed Abshir, is that he belongs to the Darod clan, the same clan as former president Barre. Despite all the horrors that have happened since his overthrow, the memory of Barre is still so bitter that none of the other clans will stand for the return of Darod.

Increasingly, therefore, Aideed is regarded as a saviour who will stop the return of Barre's people. Mohammed Hadji Ibrahim, an elder in Mogadishu, not from Aideed's clan, said recently that they all depended on Aideed's forces now: 'What we cannot agree to is to lose the rights for which we fought the previous regime. We don't want anyone to come and put his feet on top of our heads . . . As long as they say they want to arrest Aideed, we will fight.'

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