By Jonathan Wachtel, ,
Published November 23, 2015
During a visit to the United States this month, the Somali prime minister told the United Nations Security Council that his government is a "committed and credible partner to defeat our two common enemies," the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab terrorists and lawlessness.
Appointed last October, Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has his work cut out for him, but he has the backing of the U.N. and the U.S. State Department -- and an unlikely corner of the world: Buffalo, N.Y.
Buffalo, where a typical winter dumps more than 7 feet of snow, is about as different as you can imagine from the Somali capital of Mogadishu, where 100 degrees is the norm. But they have at least one thing in common: they are home to Mohamed, a Somalia native who sought asylum in the United States in 1991, when his beloved country descended into civil war. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from State University of New York at Buffalo and married his childhood friend, Zeinab. They have two girls and two boys.
Before he was tapped to lead a government in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Mohamed served on the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and as commissioner for Equal Employment at the New York State Department of Transportation.
"I learned a lot in Western New York politics which prepares me to go to Somalia and try to solve the problem," he said outside the U.N. Security Council. "But this is a different animal. We are dealing with international terrorists and Al Qaeda, who are ready to destroy humanity."
Mohamed leaves the raising of his four children to Zeinab while he battles pirates and Al Shabaab, the Islamist insurgent group fighting to overthrow his Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Al Shabaab controls most of southern and central parts of Somalia. The Al Qaeda-affiliated group boasts thousands of militants and has imposed Shariah Law in the territories it controls. Senior Al Qaeda recruiter and trainer, Anwar al-Awlaki, who holds dual American and Yemeni citizenship, has thanked the group for "giving us a living example of how we as Muslims should proceed to change our situation. The ballot has failed us, but the bullet has not."
Al Shabaab says it is at war with "enemies of Islam," including the African Union and United Nations missions in Somalia, which have been providing humanitarian and military support to the TFG. A couple of years ago, Al Shabaab released a video warning African Union peacekeepers that "Somalia is not a place where you will earn a salary -- it is a place where you will die." Since then, scores of peacekeepers have lost their lives in roadside and suicide bombings and gun battles with militants.
Al Shabaab's reach goes well beyond Somalia. One of their militants tried to kill Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard at his home in Aarhus, Denmark. Terrorists have also carried out deadly bombings at hotels and other public places in Kenya and Uganda. And during the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, 720 Al Shabaab men flew to Lebanon to support Hezbollah.
Last June, two New Jersey men allegedly bound for Somalia for Al Shabaab training, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, were arrested at Kennedy International Airport and charged with planning to kill American troops and other foreigners.
Though he is putting his life on the line, Prime Minister Mohamed feels it is his duty to serve humanity to "regain the dignity" of the Somali people. And as if the challenges he faces weren't enough, he is also trying to improve the economy and to create a culture of accountability and transparency in government that is alien to his war-torn country.
Coincidentally, the prime minister's address to the U.N. Security Council came on the same day a federal grand jury indicted 13 Somalis and one Yemini for pirating a yacht and taking four U.S. citizens hostage. The American hostages were killed before their release could be secured by the U.S. Navy.
"We have recently seen the human face of piracy when four innocent Americans were killed by ruthless pirates," Mohamed told the Security Council. "Our heart goes to their loved ones."
Mohamed went on to warn U.N. member states that piracy and terrorism make a volatile mix: "It will not surprise us if Al Qaeda's agents in Somalia start hijacking tankers in the high seas and use them as deadly weapons as they did it in September 2001."
After his official visits to the United Nations and Washington, D.C., Mohamed flew up to Buffalo to spend time with his family.
"It's very hard to balance the love I have here in my community in Buffalo and of course my homeland that I really love," Mohamed said. "The problem I have in Somalia is really heavy. It's huge. And when times get tough, then I try to remember my family back here." He said that time with his wife and children is precious, even the endless questions from the baby of the family, his 8-year-old son Magan.
"I am happy my dad's home," Magan said before dragging his father to the basement for a ping-pong game.
Mohamed's eldest daughter, Intisar, says she is proud of her father's sacrifice, but she misses him terribly, especially his fun side. "He's a goofy guy," Intisar said with a huge smile. "We miss him a lot. I even miss him telling us to pick stuff up off the floor."
Their mother is proud of her prime minister husband, too, though raising the children alone is challenging. "My husband has a good heart and always he wanted to save the country," Zeinab said. "I gave him two thumbs up because he always wanted to do the job. And the last time I said you go ahead. You save Somalia. I'll save these kids."
Mohamed and Zeinab say children in America have it good and take things for granted. They half joke that if their own kids, who get too wrapped up in computer games and Facebook, need a reality check, they can always take them to Somalia. But Mohamed wants to make sure Somalia is safer before that can happen.
While waiting to catch up with friends and former colleagues for a spicy Buffalo wings dinner, Mohamed took a stroll along the icy embankment of Lake Erie. He paused, looked at the Buffalo Skyline and then out across the chilly lake waters. His thoughts drifted off some 8,000 miles to Somalia, his troubled country and its future, which is tied to his own. "Failure is not an option," he said.