Somali President Sheikh Sharif’s Diplomatic Efforts in the U.S.

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Gruen
CTR Vantage
Nov. 4, 2009

Somali president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed traveled to the U.S. in early October; among other things, his trip was designed to engender support for his government within the U.S. Somali community and mitigate the efforts of al-Shabaab recruiters. He made stops in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, home to the country’s two largest Somali immigrant communities, and in Chicago.

Approximately 70,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, several thousand of whom turned out for Sheikh Sharif’s Oct. 4 speech at the University of Minnesota. In it, Sharif expressed sympathy for the families of Somalis who left the U.S. to join up with al-Shabaab, saying he was “sorry that some Somali boys whose families fled from the lack of peace in Somalia, that were here in America, were sent back to the county and became not only part of the problem, but are victims themselves while victimizing others.”1 He warned his audience that recruiters had infiltrated area mosques, and it was up to parents to watch their sons carefully. He went on to urge members of the Somali community to seek education so they could one day return to Somalia and help rebuild it. “We need many people with expertise, and we hope to take advantage of those who are present,” he said. “The most important thing is for them to understand they are needed by their homeland.”2 Sheikh Sharif made similar statements in his speeches in Columbus and in Chicago.

Whether Sheikh Sharif’s words to the diaspora community will have a positive and lasting effect remains to be seen. The government that he leads is precariously situated; while it is backed by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, it only controls a sliver of Somalia’s territory and its popular support is questionable. Moreover, some Western observers question Sharif’s intentions due to the leadership role he used to play within the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and the fact that he was among the first ICU leaders to call for an insurgency.3

Sheikh Sharif was welcomed warmly by the U.S.’s Somali communities, but after hearing his speech some community members expressed skepticism to the press over whether he could turn Somalia around. Others claimed that he overgeneralized the nature of al-Shabaab recruitment, with one St. Paul resident telling a reporter: “The feeling of the Somali community is this is an isolated issue…. It’s not the whole youth. I think he made it an overarching issue.”4

While Sharif was well received, it is not clear that his words alone were enough to spur members of the diaspora community to identify and weed out al-Shabaab recruiters in their midst.

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1Laura Yuen, “In Minneapolis, Somali President Asks for Help,” Minneapolis Public Radio, Oct. 5, 2009. return

2Laura Yuen, “Somali President: Recruiters Likely Still in U.S.,” Minnesota Public Radio, Oct. 3, 2009. return

3Garowe Online (Puntland, Somalia), Dec. 26, 2006. return

4Mara H. Gottfried, Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.), Oct. 5, 2009. return

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