Depending on who you talk to, Michele Ballarin, a North Virginia businesswoman, is a ruthless mercenary, a covert operative, or a grandiose but well-intentioned humanitarian.
In my profile of her for this week’s Washington Post magazine, I uncovered evidence for all of these persons. She juggles these guises on a daily basis. One morning Ballarin will be on the phone with the former President of Somalia, who she is now working with on a refugee resettlement initiative. Later that day, she’ll email an acquaintance in the military about some half-cocked clandestine operation in a geopolitical hotspot that she and Perry Davis, her close business partner and a former Green Beret, are pitching to a Pentagon general. She will boast in the 2012 email that she is a “devout Wahabi hunter with my Sufi warriors” and that a Senegalese family has
offered us the former military base on the lle de Gorie just off the coastline of Senegal which will serve as a more than adequate sea based launch point into the Trans Sahel for our snatch and grab operations. There is a fortress/dungeon on the island as well with a glorious history of torture and confinement which will serve our purposes well.
This is the same woman who plays the organ for her church every Sunday and who recently told me that the Vatican earlier this year had awarded her a medal for her humanitarian work in Somalia. (I have only been able to confirm that the former is true.)
As one of her former associates, a retired naval intelligence officer, says in my story:
The problem with Michele [Ballarin] is separating fact from fiction. What is real, and what is made up?
What I have I confirmed as real is the classified contract she got for her work in Somalia. This was in 2008 when Ballarin, as I write in my piece, “enticed a Pentagon counterterrorism office” to set her loose in Somalia as the face of a humanitarian project. At this time, Ballarin had taken on another persona–that of “Amira” (it means princess in Arabic), which is the name she said that Somalis had conferred on her. (I discuss how this supposedly came about in my story.)
Ballarin convinced the Pentagon that she had established a network of relationships in Somalia, spanning warlords, clan elders and local politicians. She was sent to Somalia in the Fall of 2008 to market what she billed as her “organic solution” (ORGSOL)–an economic development program. Her mission, she reported via email to her contracting officer on the operation (who she referred to as “cheetah”), was an “unbelievable success” in Somaliland, a breakaway republic in the north of the country. Regional media, she said, depicted her
as Amira coming to Somaliland to determine a better way forward for their people to receive aid and better governance.
She was a huge hit, she wrote Cheetah:
The press followed me during the entire trip—all the ministry meetings, the meeting with the president, and followed me on the tarmac to the plane just steps prior to the departure.
Amira peddled ORGSOL everywhere she went. And everyone from clan elders to Somaliland ministers gave it their (literal) stamp of approval. Near the end of one leg of her trip, she writes back:
I have been on the national news for the last three nights. Significant press coverage in the print, radio broadcast and television media all over Somaliland: AMIRA: ORGSOL. Apparently everyone is talking about it now.
All the endorsements and gushing attention Ballarin received seemed to make her giddy with perceived clout. At one point, she emailed Cheetah:
I can and will replicate this process from Hargeisa to Kismayo and stabilize this country. You will see. I have already received the go ahead to implment ORGSOL in Somaliland, Makhir State. Puntland, Mudug Region, Mogadishu Region and have had ORGSOL blessed by the ARS (Sheikh Sharif Ahmed), all the five clans, the elders of those clans, the clerics and the TFG [Transitional Federal Government]. We need to deploy soonest.
Cheetah was ecstatic. “Brilliant work,” he wrote back.
While Ballarin was barnstorming Somalia, a tense drama was playing out over over the MV Faina, which Somali pirates had recently hijacked. The Pirates were locked in a standoff with the Ukrainian government, while the U.S. government was trying to ensure that the lethal cargo— 33 Soviet-made tanks and rocket-propelled grenades—didn’t fall into the wrong hands, particularly the Al-Shabaab, a home-grown Islamic extremist group with ties to Al-Queda. U.S. Navy ships and helicopters were hovering.
Ballarin asked Cheetah for permission to sign off on a plan she had to peaceably resolve the situation. She said she had Somali contacts that were acting as intermediaries between her and the pirates holding the MV Faina. She had apparently brokered a deal. The pirates, she wrote in an email to him
have accepted Amira’s conditions to unwind the standoff and relinquish the ship. I am negotiating the time line but it is very likely the US Navy will see a large sign being held up on the deck of the MV Faina which reads: WE HONOR AMIRA’S REQUEST TO UNWIND.
She got the go-ahead from Cheetah “to proceed with the proposed actions concerning the MV Faina.” He also said he’d try to get a photo of the sign. “Hope we can pull it off.” (That photo appeared in news accounts of the incident, but has now mysteriously disappeared.)
The gambit was a partial success, at least as far as Ballarin was concerned. A banner bearing Amira’s name did get hoisted on the deck, but that was all it read. And the pirates didn’t agree to any deal until three months later when a $3 million dollar ransom was paid by the ship’s owners (who complained to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about Ballarin’s meddling). By this time, Ballarin’s services as a fledgling U.S. intelligence operative in Somalia were no longer wanted, but the legend of Amira was just beginning.
[Crew of the hijacked MV Faina standing on deck during the crisis/Wikipedia]