As one political scientist recently noted, a “fundamental difficulty” for counterterrorist operations in collapsed states like Somalia is the ever-shifting landscape of loyalties:
Local authorities collaborate with the insurgents that they fight. Armed groups unify and then suddenly split.
This is a treacherous environment for outsiders to navigate, particularly someone who poses as a humanitarian do-gooder/ intelligence operative. But if you are someone also looking to profit off of the instability of a place like Somalia, then you are accustomed to a duplicitous world of murky alliances. Michele Ballarin, a Virginia businesswoman who is the subject of my Washington Post magazine profile, comfortably inhabits all these roles.
As I wrote in my piece, in the late 2000s Ballarin became a confidant of Somali pirates, warlords and politicians, who refer to her as Amira (which means princess in Arabic). In 2009 she became friendly with Somalia’s then-incoming President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former schoolteacher who has cunningly navigated the volatile politics of his country–and its relations with the United States. Shortly after meeting with her, he issued a proclamation appointing Ballarin his “presidential advisor for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.”
It was a meaningless title that never amounted to anything, but it’s the sort of document Ballarin likes to wave around as proof of her bonafides. I’ve seen a bunch of others she obtained from various local politicians across Somalia, naming her as an advisor. An East Africa expert who worked in the Pentagon until a few years ago once scoffed when I told him about her collection of official proclamations. He compared them to crackerjack prizes. “The way these people have survived is by handshakes,” he said. “It’s all about relationships and these things ebb and flow all the time.”
Nonetheless, as I reported in my piece, Sharif (now an ex-President) and Ballarin have recently co-founded a Virginia-based nonprofit called the Oasis Foundation for Hope. Its objective, they told me earlier this summer at her opulent “headquarters” in Warrenton, Virginia, is the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees, many who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Sharif and Ballarin estimate it will cost several hundred million dollars to build the initial resettlement villages in Somalia. Each village is expected to house roughly 1,000 people; as Ballarin describes it, there will be new schools, medical clinics, and job-training centers. It’s an enormous undertaking for a country that is still dominated by warlords and Islamic militants. Indeed, Somalia remains so treacherous that Doctors without Borders, one of the bravest humanitarian organizations, decided this past summer to pull out of the country, because it could no longer guarantee the safety of its staff.
Despite these challenging circumstances, Sharif insisted to me that “Al-shabaab is defeated” and security had improved enough for the refugees to “come back.” Ballarin was sanguine: “The international community is pushing hard to have these refugees be resettled. We’re not going to have any trouble attracting money for this.”
At the Warrenton meeting I attended with Sharif and Ballarin, she was seated at the head of a long wooden antique table in the conference room. Sharif sat to her right. Next to him was Michael Kirtley, a former writer for National Geographic who Ballarin introduced as the resettlement project’s chief media strategist. When I mentioned Somalia’s bitter clan rivalries and the country’s continuing lawlessness as impediments to the Foundation’s goals, Kirtley chimed in: “This whole area, the horn of Africa is very strategic, not only because of piracy and oil, but because of different terrorist influences involved in the area. So when you talk about doing anything in this area, it’s going to be scrutinized. It’s important to recognize that there are people who may not want you to be doing this.”
But Ballarin was already thinking like a master planner. To her, the project was part of something much bigger. “It’s not just about providing a school or a clinic, or a refugee resettlement dwelling. It’s about a whole piece. No one’s ever solved that. And the model we’ll create will be a model for Africa. Really, it will be.”
On the wall overlooking the table hung handsomely framed photographs of a young blond woman with a glowing smile, shaking hands in 1984 with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. It was Ballarin at 29 years old, before she was Amira, the would-be savior of Somalia. She had been a guest at an official White House event.
Three decades later, this same woman fashioned herself as a bold visionary, someone who could put a broken country in a troubled region back together again. What did the average Somali make of Ballarin?
“They love her!” Sharif said to me at the meeting. “All the time they talk about Amira.” Ballarin looked down sheepishly and smiled.
Where in Somalia do they talk about her, I wondered? “Everywhere,” Sharif said. “Everywhere in Somalia. They call me [he pretends to hold a telephone to his ear], ‘Did you see Amira?’ I say, ‘yes.’”
I asked him why he thought she was so popular with Somalis. “Because they know she’s working to help the people in Somalia,” he replied.
He said all this with a straight face.
I wonder if Sharif knows that it was just a few years ago Ballarin was telling some associates–and one militant faction in Somali–that he “had to be be taken out.” Maybe the two of them have since patched up whatever differences they once had. When it comes to Somalia, you need a scorecard to keep track of who’s on what side.