At the Bright Moon Cafe at the corner of Cedar Ave. and Lake Street in Minneapolis last weekend, Abdikarim Hashi sipped on steaming cinnamon-ginger Somali tea, peering into his cell phone for news of home.
Hashi’s home is the sun-drenched Somali port city of Kismayo, where year-round blue skies, lush vegetation and sugar-white beaches would normally qualify it as among the most stunningly beautiful cities in the Horn of Africa.
Except that today, Kismayo is located on the most active front line of Somalia’s torturously complicated civil war, which has been raging for 20 years and is now escalating to new heights — or more accurately, depths.
The latest news is nerve-rattling: 2,000 Kenyan troops crossed the border into Somalia last October, heading for Kismayo supported by attack helicopters, fighter jets and probably U.S. Reaper drones. They continue their advance toward the city every day, along the way battling the al-Qaeda linked extremist group, the Shabab, for control of the town.
In its way, the Kenyan army is thus marching towards Minnesota, too.
As home to the world’s largest community of Somali refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands, Minnesota feels the impact of every new battle and rumor of war in Somalia. Each new piece of news lands with a terrifying thud here, sending Minnesota-Somalis like Hashi to their cellphones and computers to learn the fate of relatives back home.
“Our first concern every day is how is the family doing back home, are they okay?” Hashi said. “What happens over there has a big impact on us right here. With a conflict like this, people have to escape — family, friends and relatives. That puts additional pressure on us to financially support them, to help them move around and stay safe.”
If the Kenyan army does finally battle the Shabab for control of Kismayo, “our family could lose a lot of property, a house and a farm,” Hashi said. “We’ve left all of that behind, and the chances are it will all be destroyed.”
In recent days, all of the Somali markets around Minnesota have been buzzing as the Somali civil war dramatically enters a new phase that is
heightening fears of fueling the global spread of al Qaeda-style radical Islam — yet at the same time, raising hopes that a real breakthrough for a lasting peace in Somalia may, at long last, be close at hand.
Hopes are high because the Shabab, which has controlled most of southern Somalia with Taliban-like cruelty since 2007, appears to many observers to be weakening considerably, perhaps even fatally.
The group long ago lost popular support in Somalia with its beheadings, stonings and extortionate taxation schemes it uses to raise money from citizens. Moreover, its leadership is increasingly split between a relatively small number of religious zealots on the one hand, and more pragmatic clan and nationalist leaders who have signaled a willingness to negotiate peace terms with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.
Militarily, the Shabab is weakening too. It withdrew from the Somali capital city of Mogadishu last August, and is now fighting to repulse not one but three simultaneous advances against its remaining strongholds.
Besides the Kenyan army’s march towards Kismayo, hundreds of Ethiopian troops, at the Somali government’s apparent request, crossed into Somalia in November, recapturing territory from the Shabab; and an African Union force of 9,000-plus is battling remaining Shabab positions near Mogadishu.
With Shabab faltering, global superpower interests in Somalia, with its strategic Middle East location and possibly rich oil reserves, are also once again rising. England, one of the two colonial powers (with Italy) that ruled in Somalia until 1960, will host an international conference on February 23, when more than 40 nations will gather to hopefully catalyze what England calls a “step-change” in Somalia’s security and governance.
With such major convulsions afoot, a nervous ambivalence dominates among Minnesota-Somalis. On visits last week to three Somali markets in Minneapolis, many Minnesota-Somalis, their nervousness for their relatives in Somalia notwithstanding, nevertheless expressed hope that the three military actions now underway completely and finally defeats the Shabab.
“Al Shabab, enough!” exclaimed a restaurant owner at the Karmel Market in the Whittier neighborhood, making a contemptuous face and a chopping motion on his forearms, one after the other.
Roughly two dozen young Somali men, radicalized to extremist Islam while living in the Twin Cities, returned to Somalia to join extremist groups in the mid-2000s, according to federal authorities who conducted the largest domestic terrorism investigation ever in the U.S., here in Minnesota.
Mohamed Warsame, the executive director of the Somali Senior Center in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood, expressed his exasperation with the Shabab for all the havoc they’ve caused.
“The London conference is a good thing, and I am for any kind of force against the Shabab,” said Warsame, a former Somali diplomat. “They don’t want to work, they don’t want to go to school. They want to establish an evil African caliphate. Anything that dismantles them is good.”
“The warlords hate people like us,” Warsame added, referring to the strong men who control many clan-based regions in Somalia. “They don’t want educated people to come back because they need chaos to survive. They thrive on it.”
Many Minnesota-Somalis distinguished between their views on the Shabab on the one hand, and their religious beliefs on the other. Many vehemently oppose the Shabab yet still favor a future Somalia government guided by mainstream Islamic values.
Balos Yusuf, a St. Cloud Technical College student visiting the 24 Market in Minneapolis last Saturday, said focusing so much on the Shabab was unfair to the vastly greater numbers of moderate Muslims seeking dialogue.
“People say all Muslims are terrorists,” Yusuf said. “But when other religions are criticized, people don’t condemn the whole religion, only the part of it that’s being extreme. That’s what we want. That’s what’s fair.”
Some Minnesota-Somalis argue that the London conference holds out true hope for helping Somalia finally end its seemingly endless civil war. They acknowledge that the world powers have their eyes set on Somalia’s oil reserves and strategic location, but argue that only developed countries have the technological know-how to help Somalia access its own wealth.
Nonsense, say other Minnesota-Somalis, including Abdikarim Hashi, who has seen many grand peace plans for his country fizzle in his time.
“I totally disagree with the London conference,” he said. “They’ve been doing conferences for 20 years and nothing good ever comes of it. They make a new map, and endorse new people, and it only makes things worse.
“The international community should let Somalis determine their future themselves,” he added. “The problem is Somalia’s, and it will only be solved by Somalis working with each other.”