Dubious Diplomacy

Slade Gorton says that 28-year-old Seattle grocer Koshin Mohamed is an official Somali representative to the U.S. But the State Department says otherwise.

In the little grocery store he runs next to a Pizza Time on 12th Avenue East, Koshin Mohamed gets worked up as he describes his efforts to prod U.S. officials into supporting the tenuous new government in his native Somalia. Mohamed has just returned from Washington, D.C., a place he goes so often that his cell phone number has a 202 area code. There, he gave State Department officials a $316 million aid proposal to help jump-start Somalia's newly formed Transitional Federal Government, of which he says he's an official representative. The three-page request includes funding for such things as 45,000 police, military, and security officers, as well as 500 employees in the executive and judicial branches.

"It just gives me a stomachache," says the 28-year-old Mohamed, who wears jeans and a blue-and-white-striped turtleneck, and whose youthful face is framed by a well-trimmed beard. He acknowledges that the U.S. has encouraged Somalia's new government, which in late December seized the capital, Mogadishu, from an Islamic coalition that has been accused of links to Al Qaeda. But Mohamed says the U.S. has not backed up its words with money: "If the [Somali] government doesn't provide services and build the police and security forces right away, it's going to lose respect in a heartbeat," he says.

As he talks, sitting in front of a block of computers that he rents out by the minute, Mohamed is periodically interrupted by customers, who browse the shelves of couscous and curry powder and an ice-cream freezer packed with halal meat. It is an odd double life that he appears to lead. Last month, the Discovery Institute, a conservative local think tank with a budding foreign policy division, held a press conference for Mohamed at which it announced that the Transitional Federal Government had chosen the fresh-faced small businessman as its ambassador to the U.S.—or, rather, its "ambassador designate," since the U.S. does not as yet officially recognize the Somali government. Bruce Chapman, the Discovery Institute's director, says he was introduced to Mohamed through former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, one of several influential advisers the young man has become acquainted with.

While the local press dutifully reported Mohamed's appointment as fact, others were immediately skeptical. David Shinn, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Ethiopia who now teaches African affairs at George Washington University, says that there's a standard diplomatic protocol that doesn't jibe with Mohamed's peculiar appointment. "Certainly, the Transitional Federal Government is going to have its primary representatives in Washington and New York," says Shinn. In fact, he says he's met current TFG officials who live in those cities.

"What this man has been doing is bouncing around from person to person trying to find a way into this building," says a State Department official in a position to know Mohamed's status, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "This man has no bona fides. He's presenting himself with all sorts of different titles he doesn't have."

As for the proposed aid request Mohamed says he submitted, the official says: "It would not be considered an official document. We deal with the government ofSomalia through our embassy in Nairobi."

Yet even the official concedes that Mohamed's lack of official standing, in the State Department's eyes, does not mean he has no relationship with the Somali government. "He probably knows people," the official says. "He may know the president."

Somalia is a country divided alongregionally based clan lines, so it is significant when Mohamed says his paternal grandfather hailed from the same northern province, Puntland, as current Somali (and former Puntland) President Abdullahi Yusuf. Both families belong to the Darood clan, and because of this, Mohamed refers to Yusuf as "uncle."

According to Mohamed, his grandfather cut an unusual figure in Puntland: Named Mohamed Ilmi Jama, he was a wealthy cattle farmer who developed an interest in women's rights, believing that true Islam afforded women more liberties than did Somalia's Muslim culture. Mohamed's father, Abdiaziz Mohamed, was purely a businessman, Mohamed says. Based in Mogadishu, he built a trade around importing and exporting. He was an early admirer, however, of now-President Yusuf, then a dissident leader who had defected from the army of dictator Siad Barre. "My father used to talk about him," Mohamed says, referring to Yusuf. "He used to say this guy is our future."

Mohamed says he himself didn't think much about Yusuf until later in life. In 1991, amidst warlord-driven chaos, Mohamed's father sent him and his siblings out of the country. Mohamed stayed with relatives in Africa and the Middle East until 1997, when he ventured to Seattle to live with an older brother. Here, he was in good company: The Seattle-area Somali community is believed to be the third largest in the U.S., after those in the Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, vicinities. Local activists estimate that about 30,000 Somalians live here, their presence most visible in the long-skirted, veiled women commonly seen on the streets in Rainier Valley, South King County, and other hot spots.

Upon arrival, Mohamed would go on to major in ethnic studies at the University of Washington. At the time of his press conference, he said he graduated from UW, but university records indicate otherwise. Producing pictures of himself in a cap and gown, Mohamed explains that he went through commencement ceremonies but was not recognized as having graduated because of financial holds placed on his records. But UW spokesperson Bob Roseth says that theuniversity would not prevent anyone from graduating because of financial holds; that, in fact, Mohamed had not completed the necessary course work to matriculate.

Shortly after concluding his studies, Mohamed became president of a Somali social service group, one of several in town that go by the name Somali Community Services. At the same time, he says, he started thinking about the situation back home. "I realized that a lot of the thingsmy father said about Yusuf were true," Mohamed says. "He was the most capable leader Somalia had."

At this point, he says, he simply called up the then–Puntland president in early 2001, when Mohamed was 23. Over a month's worth of conversations, Mohamed says Yusuf told him that he couldn't afford representatives in D.C., where he was considered an authoritarian figure—if not a warlord. "You know, Koshin, I know your family," Mohamed recalls Yusuf telling him. "You can represent me."

Mohamed quickly showed a knack for bending the ears of important people. "I was trying to educate myself and get mentors," he says.

John Calvin Williams, a D.C.-based economic consultant and former International Monetary Fund official specializing in Africa, recalls that Mohamed came up to him a few years ago after he participated in a forum at George Washington University. "I tried to help him in any way I could," Williams says. "He was obviously—and I hate to use the word—articulate."

Ensconced in his high-rise office at the Seattle headquarters of law firm K&L Gates, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton describes a similar reaction when Mohamed walked in after arranging an appointment five or six years ago. "I felt that I liked this young man," the 79-year-old Gorton recalls. He also felt like Yusuf, whatever his limitations, had the best chance of uniting a country that had been without a government for more than a decade.

Accepting the role of Mohamed's adviser on a pro bono basis, Gorton and colleagues at the firm began trying to set up meetings for him with officials in D.C. In 2002, Gorton and Mohamed planned to bring Yusuf to an event at the Sea-Tac Doubletree Hotel. But Yusuf's trip to the U.S. was held up by his participation in peace talks in Kenya, where he was ultimately chosen to lead the new Somali government that just assumed power.

But Yusuf remains a tough sell in the Somali immigrant community. At Banadir Super Store, a sizable Rainier Avenue establishment filled with vividly colored headscarves and flowing Islamic robes, a fierce, anti-Yusuf sentiment prevails. "We call it a made-up government," says owner Nordin Wassame. "Our people didn't elect that government. Some people in Kenya elected it."

Yet Wassame and two friends at the store don't put much stock in democracy. "We're Muslims," proclaims Mohamed Ali, a young man wearing a black leather jacket over a long white Islamic-style tunic. "We need our rules—Islamic rules, not democracy. That's a Western tradition." What they want is Sharia, the code of Islamic law imposed by the Islamic Courts coalition that Yusuf ousted.

Down the street, in a ramshackle office bedecked with posters of Mogadishu's perch on the Indian Ocean, a stopped clock, and a map from 1930 that shows colonial Somaliland divided among the French, Italian, and British, a young man named Abdo Mohamed says he absolutely supports democracy. "I don't trust any government not based on votes," says Mohamed, acting president of the Somali Banadir Community Services (not the organization Koshin Mohamed once led).

But he, too, is skeptical of Yusuf's Transitional Federal Government. "How can they run the country when everyone in the government has a history of promoting violence?" he asks.

"The largest group of Somalians here don't support Yusuf," acknowledges Koshin Mohamed. He attributes that to a "propaganda machine" against the president. He portrays Yusuf as a "peacemaker," somebody who has reached out to enemies rather than kill them, and who is trying to get beyond clan ties and build up the country's infrastructure.

Mohamed has had an easier time selling this viewpoint to mentors like Gorton. The former senator has not been directly exposed to other opinions among Somali immigrants, having not met any besides those introduced to him by Mohamed. Nor,Gorton concedes, has he done much digging into his young friend's relationship with Yusuf. "He just told me [he represented Yusuf]. I accepted it." He produces, however, a copy of a 2006 letter that purports to be from Yusuf's office and declares Mohamed a "special assistant to the president."

"I'm guessing that probably the Transitional Federal Government sent letters to a number of people," says Shinn. The former ambassador maintains that, as a Seattle resident, Mohamed is not in a position to influence policy formulated in D.C. But, Shinn notes, "He can influence the African diaspora, and that, I suspect, is the point."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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