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The Curious Case of Ilhan Omar

eye on the news

The Curious Case of Ilhan Omar

A political—and familial—mystery swirls around a Somali-American’s “historic” candidacy for Minnesota’s state legislature. September 9, 2016
Politics and law

In early August, 33-year-old Ilhan Omar became an overnight sensation in Minnesota politics. Her primary victory over 22-term incumbent Phyllis Kahn secured the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) endorsement of Omar’s candidacy to represent House District 60B in the state legislature. Minneapolis’s Star Tribune trumpeted Omar’s victory in a huge headline on its front page, proclaiming that the Somali immigrant’s victory had “made history.” The paper followed up with two more retrospective stories admiring Omar’s triumph.

Omar’s victory shouldn’t have come as a surprise. She campaigned hard in the district, which includes the heart of the Cedar Riverside area now known as Little Mogadishu. Omar’s third DFL primary opponent was Somali, as is her Republican challenger (who has since suspended his campaign). The Star Tribune nonetheless portrayed the win as a remarkable accomplishment, not only because Omar defeated Kahn, who is tied for the longest-serving legislator in state history, but also because of Omar’s background. She spent time in a Kenyan refugee camp before settling in the Twin Cities in the late 1990s.

As many candidates do, Omar has made her personal background an integral part of her campaign. But neither the candidate nor the reporters who covered her have shown much interest in exploring one aspect of her personal story that recently came to public attention: the fact that she is not legally married to the man she advertises as the husband and the father of her three children. In fact, she is legally married to another man—who may be her brother. A posting on the SomaliSpot discussion board alleged that Omar had married the man touted as her husband in 2002 before marrying her brother for fraudulent purposes in 2009. The post, which seems to have been written by someone from Minneapolis’s Somali community, was quickly deleted. By the time it came to my attention, the post was only available via a Google cache (now also deleted). If the story is true, however, it suggests that Omar had engaged in some kind of dishonest activity in connection with her marriage to her brother (which by itself would be illegal).

I originally checked out the SomaliSpot story online through the Minnesota Official Marriage System. Inputting Omar’s name, I found that the two marriages cited in the discussion board post checked out as indicated. The site reflected Omar’s 2002 marriage to her advertised husband, Ahmed Aden (later Ahmed Hirsi), and her 2009 marriage to Ahmed Nur Said Elmi (identified in the SomaliSpot post as Omar’s brother). A few days after the primary, I submitted written questions to representatives of the Omar campaign, citing the SomaliSpot post, and asking whether Omar’s second marriage had been entered into with her brother for dishonest purposes. That same afternoon, I received a message from Omar’s press contact indicating that the campaign would get back to me later that day. I didn’t hear back from campaign officials directly, but I did receive a response from Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Jean Brandl. It provided no answer to my question, and implied that the question itself evidenced bigotry against Omar and her candidacy for public office.

Dear Mr. Johnson:

I have been contacted by the Ilhan Omar campaign. Their response to your email from this morning is as follows:

“There are people who do not want an East African, Muslim woman elected to office and who will follow Donald Trump’s playbook to prevent it. Ilhan Omar’s campaign sees your superfluous contentions as one more in a series of attempts to discredit her candidacy.

Ilhan Omar’s campaign will not be distracted by negative forces and will continue to focus its energy on creating positive engagement with community members to make the district and state more prosperous and equitable for everyone.”

If you have any further questions regarding this matter, please direct them to me in writing so we have a record of any further communications.

Sincerely,

Jean Brandl

I posted an account of all this on Power Line. The Star Tribune followed up on the story the following week, but Omar declined to be interviewed. Democratic operative Ben Goldfarb spoke to the Star Tribune on Omar’s behalf: “Allegations that she married her brother and is legally married to two people are categorically ridiculous and false.” Omar’s campaign explained that she had never legally married Ahmed Hirsi and flatly denied that Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, her legal husband, is her brother. Omar issued a statement that went back to the royal flush of bigotry accusations and decried the “Trump-style misogyny, racism, anti-immigration rhetoric and Islamophobic division” allegedly motivating questions about her marital status. When Star Tribune reporter Patrick Coolican requested a comment from me for his story that day, I asked him who Elmi is. “They won’t tell me,” he said.

Controversy continued to mount. The following day, Omar issued a formal written statement explaining that she had requested—but never formally executed—a marriage license for her first marriage, the one her campaign has publicly touted, to her husband and the father of her children. She married him in an Islamic ceremony in 2002, but never filed an executed marriage license with the state. What I found online reflected that Omar had in fact applied for a license to marry Aden/Hirsi. (The entry on the Minnesota Official Marriage System has since been scrubbed.) The statement further explained that Omar had married her current legal husband—Ahmed Nur Said Elmi—in 2009. Though they split in 2011, with Elmi returning to the United Kingdom, Omar never got around to dissolving the marriage. The statement described Omar’s 2002 husband as “the love of [her] life.” Current campaign spokesman Michael Howard has declared that the statement would be Omar’s last word on the matter. On this point, Omar has kept her promise. She has failed to respond to questions from me, or respond to interview requests from several local reporters. Give Omar credit for consistency.

One wonders, however, whether a candidate for public office can unilaterally declare a significant matter of public interest off-limits from discussion. It’s not as though Omar hasn’t injected her family into the campaign. She features husband Number One and their three children on her campaign website, though she has omitted any mention of husband Number Two—who is, remember, her current legal husband. One specific question to which Omar has provided no response is: Does she have a brother named Ahmed Nur Said Elmi?

The local media have mostly let the story rest where Omar wants it. There may be good reasons for that; it’s certainly a difficult story to investigate. Local Somalis who have contacted me express concern for their physical safety. Covering the story is also unpleasant. Unwarranted imputations of bigotry are the stock-in-trade of the Omar campaign on this subject. I can testify to the phenomenon first hand.

One local reporter remains unimpressed and unintimidated by these tactics. Writing for the Minnesota-based site Alpha News, Preya Samsundar is untroubled by the Omar campaign’s cries of racism. She comes from a family of Guyanese immigrants who trace their lineage to indentured Indian servants brought to Guyana by the British. Using social media as a primary source, Samsundar has found information suggesting that Elmi, the man Omar married in Minnesota in 2009, is indeed her brother. Omar’s own Instagram photos from the summer of 2015 place her in London with relatives, and with a man later identified as Ahmed Nur Said Elmi. Soon after her marital history became an issue, however, Omar closed her Instagram account to the public. When the account became public again, Samsundar found that the original photo collage of Omar and Elmi was no longer included. Samsundar also discovered that accounts once connected to Elmi have disappeared since the controversy began. Even LinkedIn pages and Elmi’s professional portfolio pages have gone missing. New accounts for Elmi have appeared under a different name, and without his identifying photo.

Based on her reporting, Samsundar believes that Omar’s siblings include Ahmed Nur Said Elmi and Mohamed Nur Said Elmi, both residents of the United Kingdom. Their social media accounts have referred to Omar as their sister. Samsundar found comments and posts by Omar and Elmi showing an intimate relationship even after their supposed 2011 marital split. Samsundar put it to me this way: “I think social media prove without a doubt that there is a familial relationship that is not that of a husband and wife.”

I met with a Somali source who gave me a screenshot of a 2015 Facebook post in which Mohamed Nur Said Elmi discussed Omar’s appearance in London and touted her prospective political career. On August 22, I accessed Mohamed Nur Said Elmi’s Facebook account and viewed a post celebrating Omar’s primary victory. When I returned to the Facebook page later that evening, the post had disappeared. Samsundar routinely found other related social media accounts had also been deleted. “This is a systematic purge of online presence,” Samsundar told me.

Samsundar discovered Ahmed Nur Said Elmi’s professional resume online and tracked him down via e-mail. As for his possible marriage to Omar, Elmi commented: “[N]o way am I affiliated with anyone in your articles. Nor do I recall being married to anyone. At least, from what I remember. :)” Though much of the evidence in this story has been written in disappearing ink, that quote is a keeper.

Photo: Ilhan Omar for state representative—60B, via Facebook

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