Somalia: Who's Who

Since Somalia gained independence in 1960, the country has struggled with democracy as the superpowers staged Cold War turf battles and the nation reeled from a post-colonial trauma of civil war, drought, famine and an ultimate breakdown of democratic institutions. Here is a look at some of the major players in Somalia's modern history.

Mohammad Siad Barre

Somali strongman and uncontested dictator for more than 20 years, Mohammad Siad Barre is widely held responsible for sowing the seeds of Somalia's descent into chaos. Orphaned at 10, Barre scratched out an existence as a shepherd in what was then Italian Somaliland until he joined the colonial police force, where he rapidly ascended the military ranks. In 1960, when Somalia gained independence from Italy, Barre was appointed the new nation's army vice commander. Five years later, he became commander-in-chief of the Somali armed services. In October 1969, Barre ousted the democratically elected President Abdi Rashid Ali Shermarke in a coup and with it, put an end to Somalia's fledgling experiments with democracy. During the next two decades, he exploited the Cold War tussle in Africa through border conflicts with neighboring Ethiopia. Although Barre began his reign as a Soviet ally, Soviet favor gradually shifted from Somalia to Ethiopia during the 1980s and forced him to cultivate the United States as an ally, which then turned into Somalia's biggest military provider. But in May 1992, he was forced to flee his homeland when rebels captured the capital of Mogadishu. Barre was granted asylum by the Nigerian government and he lived in Lagos until his death in January 1995.

Mohammed Farah Aideed

Called "a menace to public safety" by then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, Mohammed Farah Aideed was arguably the cause behind one of the messiest chapters in modern U.S. military history. One of the most well-known of numerous Somali warlords, the ghost of Aideed haunted U.S. foreign policy decades after the world watched in horror as the naked, mutilated bodies of U.S. soldiers on a mission to capture Aideed were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993. A product of Italian military training schools, Aideed served in Somali strongman Siad Barre's administration until he was recalled from his post as Somali Ambassador to India by his Habr Gadir clan to lead a rebellion against Siad. But even as Siad was ousted, splits arose between Aideed and his partner Ali Mahdi, leader of the Abgadir sub-clan, who was nearer to Mogadishu and declared himself president. In the subsequent national collapse that followed and through international attempts to restore peace to Somalia, Aideed earned a reputation as a warlord of astonishing cruelty. His killing of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers turned him into a wanted man by the United Nations and in their attempt to capture Aideed from a house in a Mogadishu neighborhood, 18 U.S. military personnel met their end in the dusty capital of Somalia. Despite attempts to keep the U.N. Operation Restore Hope going, the backlash from the incident and subsequent U.S. skittishness in its international operations led to the withdrawal of international troops and the demise of Operation Restore Hope. In his attempts to win support in Muslim-dominated northern Somalia, Aideed provided tacit support to Islamic militants from the Somali Islamic groups, Al Ittihad Al Islam and Jihad Al Islam, groups that are known to have ties with Islamic militants from Pakistan. Aideed is widely believed to have realized early in his career the benefits of exploiting impoverished Somali Muslims to fight against Ethiopia. He died of a heart attack related to an injury by gunmen in August 1996.

President Abdulkassim Salat Hassan

A former minister in Mohammad Siad Barre's regime, Abdulkassim Salat Hassan had to flee Somalia for Cairo, Egypt, when Siad's dictatorship fell in 1991. But a few years later, this son of a Somali traditional chief returned to his homeland to begin working with grassroots groups to hammer out a peace deal. After spending years trying to win the support of various Somali warlords and leaders inside and outside the country, Hassan was finally elected president of Somalia at a peace conference organized by the president of neighboring Djibouti in August 2000. In October 2000, Hassan returned to the Somali capital of Mogadishu to a hero's welcome and heavy security. All was not well with Somalia's first government after 10 years of chaos and anarchy. Some of the country's most powerful warlords, including Hussein Aideed, have refused to recognize Hassan's election. The combination of dire poverty, a shattered infrastructure, continued fighting between Islamic militants in northern Somalia and the growing influence of Aideed has combined to severely threaten Hassan's fledgling administration and his control is believed to be negligible outside Mogadishu.

Hussein Aideed

He dresses in business suits, was educated in the United States, was even an American citizen a decade ago, but for many of his opponents, the ghosts of his lineage continue to haunt Hussein Aideed. The son of Mohammed Farah Aideed, the former U.S. Marine is known to bristle when he is called a "warlord" like his late father. But he still carries his father's gold-tipped walking stick and his father's reputation for blocking his country's trysts with democracy. After a comfortable life in the United States, Aideed returned to his war-torn country in 1992 as part of a growing force that aimed to restore hope to Somalia. But his refusal to acknowledge the administration of President Adbulkassim Salat Hasssan and his rejection of the Djibouti peace process have put him at odds with many Somalis desperate to bring order to the country. On his part, Aideed maintains that the Somali people were never consulted about the decision to put Hassan in power and he contends that the Hassan administration is a "project controlled by [neighboring] Djibouti." In the fractious politics of Somalia, it is difficult to judge how much support Hassan and Aideed enjoy among Somalis.