Abdi Warsame might be the only city council member in the nation who lies awake at night thinking about how to fight ISIL. Fighting terrorism half a world away wasn’t what brought the 37-year-old to politics—he’d originally hoped to fix employment and education disparities, create affordable housing and transportation and give his community a voice in local politics. Yet just months after he took office in 2014, the first Somali-American elected to the Minneapolis City Council, members of his south-central ward began to disappear, lured to the Mideast to join the brutal and ambitious terrorist group. By summer, the first Minnesota man had been killed fighting for ISIL; two more would die by the end of the year in Syria.
The local radicalization problem led former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman to dub Minnesota in April, “the land of 10,000 terrorists,” a phrase that set off a firestorm of criticism locally. “The Global War on Terror is not taking place in some amorphous ‘over there’ any longer,” he wrote. “It is taking place in our own back yard, in the heartland of America, and it’s a grave danger to our state.”
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Terrorist recruitment was unfortunately not a new problem for the Twin Cities’ Somali community, which had struggled since 2008 as Somali-American teens—many of whom had never visited East Africa—left to join the Al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Shabaab, fighting in their ancestral homeland. ISIL, though, represented a new, more insidious threat—there were no nationalist or ethnic ties, no obvious appeal to the young men and women leaving Minnesota for a vicious war in the Mideast. Yet authorities believe more than 20 Minnesotans have left for Syria and Iraq in the past two years, and the fight against ISIL has put Warsame’s community at the forefront of a national effort to combat radicalization efforts. Warsame and the Minneapolis Public Schools system were front and center at a White House summit on countering violent extremism earlier this year, where they presented an innovative school-parent intervention program meant to head off the appeal of online terrorist recruiters.
Now, midway through his first term as a city council member, Warsame finds himself balancing foreign policy with local problems, like fixing potholes on Cedar and Riverside avenues or improving taxicab ordinances in the wake of a new legalizing the app-based companies, like Lyft and UberX. In many ways, Warsame understands the alienation and isolation that can breed radicalization. As he has said, “I have children growing up in the city who are no different [from] those young individuals that left.” But more than that, he himself has lived this bifurcated identity. He with his family, after all, has over the past two decades made the opposite journey—fleeing political persecution in Somalia as a child and growing up on social welfare in London before landing in the Twin Cities.
The Twin Cities were for Warsame and tens of thousands of Somalis like his family meant to be a fresh start—and, in many ways, they have been—but unfortunately, the refuge community has also found that they haven’t been able to leave the wars and unrest behind.
Warsame’s birthplace of Mogadishu and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis he represents today feel much closer than the 8,000 miles that technically separate them. The neighborhood forms the core of the largest Somali population in the United States, an estimated 100,000 Somalis and East Africans who began streaming into the country in the 1990s. On a recent warm sunny afternoon during Minnesota’s all-too-brief summer, Warsame sat at a coffee shop in the U.S. Bank Plaza that towers over his downtown Minneapolis City Hall office as he painted a picture of his past and present. “My dream was to be successful,” he says, “to fulfill my mother’s dream—that we could be whatever we wanted to be, that we could excel in life, take responsibility for our lives.”
Warsame came to Cedar-Riverside through a winding path that started in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, where he was raised in a middle-class lifestyle until he was 8. He says his success is owed to two important people in his life—his mother Kaha Ali, an ex-midwife, and his stepfather Mohamed Mohamud Guled, who became a distinguished politician after the collapse of the Somali government and held important ministerial posts in various administrations in Somalia, which took its independence from Italy and Britain in 1960.
But the Mogadishu that Warsame knew in the 1980s is far different than what it is today: A city submersed in anarchy and chaos with episodic suicide bombings and gun rampages by al-Shabaab fighters. During Warsame’s years, Mogadishu was a glamorous city with growing economic prosperity, military power and improved infrastructure. But in the late 1980s, the East-African country began to crumble as a consequence of the 1977-78 territorial war between Somalia and Ethiopia. Somalia lost the war; its once-strong economic muscle debilitated. This created a national mood of despair, leading to the birth of organized and armed opposition against the totalitarian regime of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who had ruled the country for more than two decades in a grip of steel.
A civil society campaigner, Guled went toe-to-toe against the military government, demanding justice and democracy. Guled, as a consequence, was imprisoned. At 8, Warsame and his family moved to London in 1987, fearing they would to fall victims to Barre’s worsening political repression that employed imprisonment, torture and punishment against those engaged in organized resistance and their families.
“My mother was smart enough to get us out of Mogadishu,” Warsame says, his British accent a memento of his London upbringing. “She understood that the fighting was to happen and would separate our families.”
In London, life unfolded with a dreadful beginning for the Warsame family. “It was a difficult situation because we went from having a comfortable life … to being poor, being asylum seekers, having a single parent in a country that I was not familiar with,” he recalls. “My mother didn’t speak English. She had to raise six kids by herself. We had no relatives. We were probably some of the earliest Somalis. It was difficult. We basically grew up on social welfare.”
Warsame was also the father-figure for the family: By the time he was 10 in London, he helped raise his siblings. He took his brothers to parent-teacher conferences and served as an interpreter for his mother when she had doctor’s appointments, among other responsibilities.
Warsame, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in London, met a Somali-American woman from Minnesota in London through family. The two later, they got married, and Warsame joined her in Minneapolis.