Somalia's president seeks support in Twin Cities

The war-torn country's leader will visit the 70,000-member local community as he struggles to keep his government from collapsing.

His country is lawless, his government is teetering and his people have fled to all parts of the globe.

So when Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the president of Somalia, arrives in the Twin Cities tonight to seek support among local Somalis, he'll experience something he can't find at home: A chance to talk to Somalis living at peace.

The visit, the first ever to Minnesota by a Somali head of state, is seen as vital to both Ahmed's attempts to unify and rebuild his country and to the local community's desire to play a role in that.

"He has a lot to gain or lose with this trip," said Abdisalam Adam, chairman of the board of directors of a Minneapolis mosque. "It is more than a courtesy visit. It is critical to his survival, I think."

It is estimated that Minnesota is home to about 70,000 Somalis -- most of whom live in the Twin Cities. The community is the largest concentration of Somalis in the United States.

Adam said many local Somalis maintain close ties with their homeland.

"Psychologically, many of them are connected to the country and feel the pain and loss to see how bad things have gone," he said.

Ahmed I. Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College in St. Paul, said the president and the displaced Somalis here need each other.

"Like refugees all over the world, they are obsessed with how bad their country has gone. ... So they need him in that sense. He needs them in the sense that the diaspora represents a significant part of the small, educated elite among the Somalis."

A timely trip

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled their homeland since civil war broke out in 1991. More recently, the country has become a haven for Al-Qaida -- as well as for scores of pirates who roam the coastal waters.

Ahmed, an imam who was once affiliated with the Islamic Courts Union, is seen by many Somalis as someone who can find middle ground. He has U.S. support, although his government only controls part of the capital of Mogadishu, the airport and the port.

His trip comes as his government is under steady attack by Al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group affiliated with al-Qaida. His trip also coincides with a far-reaching federal investigation into the recruitment and training of American Somalis by Al-Shabaab.

Up to 20 young Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities are believed to have been recruited by Al-Shabaab over the past two years. Five are known to have been killed in Somalia; a sixth man -- a Muslim convert from Minneapolis -- also is believed to have died.

Earlier this year, three other Somali-Americans pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to terror-related charges stemming from travels to Somalia to train and fight. More indictments are coming.

Many Somalis say they hope that Ahmed, unlike his predecessors, will be able to lay out a clear vision for his country. They also hope he will denounce Al-Shabaab and dissuade local men from following in the footsteps of the missing.

"We need to know what we can do as educated young Somalis to really help our country," said Mustafa Jumale, a University of Minnesota student who is organizing volunteers for the visit.

Families want answers

Ahmed will speak publicly at 5 p.m. Sunday at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. On Saturday, he plans to have lunch with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and meet with college students, local elders, imams and possibly, the families of the men who returned to Somalia to fight.

Relatives of some of the young men say they want to ask the president about their sons and brothers.

"Some of us, we lost our kids," said Zienab Bihie, whose son, Burhan, 18, left for Somalia last November, only to be shot and killed in Mogadishu in June. "But still we have some [young men] back there who are maybe alive ... we need them back. He knows more about these guys than we do. He's our president. He speaks the same language. And we need an answer."

Samatar said he sees promise in Ahmed's visit.

"There is something special about first moments," he said.

Ahmed needs to create "realistic hope" among local Somalis that they can join in the rebuilding of their country, he added.

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428

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