Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) became the first Somali-American legislator in United States’ history when Minnesota’s House District 60B elected her on November 8, 2016. The distinction won Omar immediate fame and influence in Somalia, which was entering the final stretch of a critical presidential election of its own.
According to prominent federal security clearance defense attorney Sean Bigley (read below), Omar’s documented actions in the weeks that followed would almost certainly prevent any applicant with such a background from obtaining or keeping a U.S. security clearance.
Ilhan Omar is now a U.S. congresswoman, however. Elected federal officials are exempted from the arduous security clearance process; they hold de facto clearances once sworn in to office. Further, Omar will likely be privy to a significant amount of classified national security information this term. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has granted Omar’s request for a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Corruption … affects virtually every aspect of the Somali society: from public officials’ misuse of public goods for private gain and the solicitation of bribes in exchange for basic services to the clan-based patronage networks used to obtain employment and political appointments.” — Transparency International, 2018
The common hyperbole for describing government corruption — “rampant,” or “endemic” — does not help adequately illustrate Somalia’s recent administrations. “As bad as it gets” does the job, literally: Transparency International, the massive NGO dedicated to exposing public-sector corruption, has placed Somalia dead-last among all nations on Earth in its annual “Corruption Perceptions Index” — for 11 consecutive years. Somalia has occasionally managed to tie, though never outrank, North Korea.
Any significant involvement by a U.S. citizen in Somalia’s election process would likely raise eyebrows at America’s intelligence agencies.
On December 20, 2016, just a few weeks after her election to Minnesota’s state legislature, Ilhan Omar was in Mogadishu with then-President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a favorite for re-election. He reportedly invited her to appear with him prior to the election taking place.
Omar likely met at least one other Somali presidential candidate on her trip. According to a speech by her soon-to-be husband Ahmed Hirsi, Ilhan had just flown from Nairobi to Mogadishu on a plane with former Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmaajo” (“Cheese”).
Farmaajo — a U.S. citizen who, inconceivably, had boarded that plane as a Buffalo, NY, cubicle employee of the New York Department of Transportation — was the eventual surprise winner of Somalia’s presidency on February 8, 2017.
The New York Times deemed Farmaajo’s bribe-fueled win “one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history.” In the run-up, “some Parliament seats had gone for more than $1 million each”:
The entire process has been so bad, several analysts said, that the Shabab militant group, one of the deadliest Islamist organizations in the world, isn’t even trying to derail the vote because the corruption free-for-all almost makes the militants look upstanding by comparison.
Perhaps coincidentally, President Trump issued Executive Order 13769, which included the 90-day provisional “Travel Ban” on Somalia and six other countries, on January 27.
Farmaajo was sworn in as president on February 16.
On February 20, Farmaajo nominated Hassan Ali Khayre to be Somalia’s prime minister by submitting his name for Parliament approval.
A Troubling Background, A Family Connection
Hassan Ali Khayre’s resume is what one might expect from a potential Somali prime minister. From 2002 until 2014, Khayre worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council, eventually directing the NGO’s work in the Horn of Africa. But in 2014, Khayre abruptly strayed from this career path — or, perhaps, assiduously followed it — when Russian oil oligarch Alexander Djaparidze named Khayre the executive director of Soma Oil & Gas.
Djaparidze had formed Soma Oil & Gas in 2013 for the purpose of securing a contract to drill Somalia. Predictably, Soma was soon under investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office for bribery payments to Somalia’s Oil Ministry. The U.S. Treasury Department would soon list Djaparidze as one of 210 Vladimir Putin associates for Congress to consider sanctioning. And Hassan Ali Khayre was also soon under investigation by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea — reportedly for far more disturbing behavior.
In 2016, a leak revealed that Khayre was suspected of utilizing his Al-Shabaab ties to the company’s benefit.
Within five months, however, Khayre was “cleared” by the UN monitoring group. He remained the executive director of Soma Oil & Gas until February 20, 2017, the day Farmaajo nominated him to be prime minister.
So … Time to Celebrate?
Back in Minneapolis from Mogadishu, Ilhan Omar and Ahmed Hirsi were keynote speakers at a February 27 community celebration of Farmaajo’s election. “One of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history” was grounds for a party.
Standing behind a podium bearing Farmaajo’s image, and wearing a lapel button of the same, Ilhan exuberantly praised him and the newly formed Somali government in a brief speech marked by religious anecdotes and imagery. Hirsi similarly praised Farmaajo, adding a specific mention of Hassan Ali Khayre.
On March 1 — two days later — the Somali Parliament unanimously approved Hassan Ali Khayre as prime minister.
On March 3, Ilhan Omar’s brother-in-law, U.S. citizen Mohamed Keynan, started working as permanent secretary to Prime Minister Khayre.
Ilhan Omar appears to have a long, close familial relationship with Mohamed Keynan.
A long-time resident of Minneapolis, MN, and Columbus, OH, Mohamed Keynan is married to Ilhan Omar’s sister, Sahra Noor. Sahra, who arrived in the United States with Ilhan in 1995, bears the distinction of being the only one of Ilhan Omar’s seven siblings whom Ilhan has ever identified or openly appeared with in public.
Sahra and Ilhan have been frequently photographed together over the years, and have often appeared together with their father, Nur Said Elmi Mohamed.
Address records show that Ilhan and Sahra have lived together at multiple residences. One St. Paul, MN, address is recorded as a residence for Ilhan, Sahra, Nur Said, and also Mohamed Keynan.
“High-level familial connections in the Somali government would be an almost guaranteed ticket to the unemployment line for any government employee who required security clearance as a condition of employment.
“Members of Congress don’t need a security clearance to view classified information, but that perhaps makes this all the more alarming and a potentially serious national security risk. There are a lot of unanswered questions here. I think Americans ought to rightfully be concerned.”
The preceding quote is from Attorney Sean M. Bigley, partner at Bigley Ranish LLP, a firm specializing in federal security clearance defense. Bigley represents clients who require a security clearance as a condition of employment, and may believe they have been unfairly denied or stripped of one.
(Note: Over the prior two years, Bigley has been at the center of perhaps the most prominent security clearance case in the country. His client Adam Lovinger, an official at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, was stripped of his security clearance in 2017 after raising concerns about contractors being overpaid to perform work of questionable value to taxpayers and conducting potentially improper foreign relations work. Incidentally, one of those contracts had been granted to Stefan Halper.)
Bigley, despite being an attorney in opposition to the U.S. government’s denial or revocation of security clearances, is clear about the seriousness with which Ilhan Omar’s situation would be treated.
Minnesota voters granted her a clearance. But most everyone else who seeks or holds an active clearance is subject to the adjudicative guidelines contained in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Security Executive Agent Directive 4. The Directive includes Guideline B: “Foreign Influence,” which offers this salient passage:
Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include: (a) contact, regardless of method, with a foreign family member, business or professional associate, friend, or other person who is a citizen of or resident in a foreign country if that contact creates a heightened risk of foreign exploitation, inducement, manipulation, pressure, or coercion.
Of course, not all Congressional committees are privy to the same volume and sensitivity of classified information. For example, Rep. Omar’s show-stopping past, even when considered along with Guideline B, would be of little concern should she be assigned to the Small Business Committee.
But Nancy Pelosi placed Omar on Foreign Affairs, so she will soon be in the middle of vital national security legislation regarding the Middle East.
Part Two of this article will be published in the coming days.
Follow the author on Twitter: @DavidSPJM