As I’ve hinted in earlier posts, there is much more to her than I could fit into my story (Even Mark Mazzetti’s excellent work only scratches at the surface).
For example, let’s return to the time in the early 2000s when Ballarin got into selling body armor. Read More
Several weeks ago, this was the headline for a press release:
Mayor Bloomberg announces New York City’s air quality has reached the cleanest levels in more than 50 years.
That’s quite a claim. Most media outlets reporting this story cut and pasted from the press release; few bothered to delve into the report Bloomberg was citing, much less provide any meaningful perspective on its findings. I asked students in my urban environmental journalism class at CUNY to look beyond the headlines and place the story in a larger context. Below are their dispatches. Read More
Somalia is much in the headlines these days. There is the big weekend news of a Navy Seal operation that was in response to the horrific terrorist attack on a Kenyan mall several weeks ago. Additionally, the 20th anniversary of Black Hawk Down has triggered media remembrances and new details of that searing event. Then there is this revelatory piece in Foreign Policy and have I mentioned the new Hollywood movie about Somali pirates (starring Tom Hanks) coming out Friday?
Amidst all this is my Washington Post magazine profile of Michele Ballarin, the strange story of a Northern Virginia businesswoman who has inserted herself into Somali affairs the past decade.
The first time Ballarin made news was in 2006, when the UK’s Observer reported on a covert military plot to aid the U.N.-installed transitional government of Somalia’s then president Abdullahi Yusef. Read More
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. Read More
The woman who I profile in this Sunday’s Washington Post magazine enjoyed a brief flurry of media attention in late 2008. Several news outlets reported that Somalia pirates had turned to Michele Ballarin, a North Virginia businesswoman, to help negotiate the release of two ships that had been seized off the coast of Somalia.
How did she become a supposed confidante of Somali pirates?
From a Nov 28, 2008 ABC News story:
“Michele Ballarin has gone over there for five years on her own, built a network of clan and sub-clan leaders in every region of the country,” Ross Newland, a business colleague of Ballarin’s, told ABC News Wednesday.
I bolded the above because Newland is the main source for the story. There is no mention of his former 26-year career in the CIA as a station chief and senior intelligence officer, which is odd since the piece reports that Ballarin has “connections to U.S. intelligence and the military.” (In 2013, Newland published an e-book called, “Cooking for Divorces: The Spy who Fed me.”)
Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who writes about Ballarin’s dalliance in Somalia in his recent book on the CIA, also has a chapter on Newland. ABC’s omission of Newland’s background is a journalistic lapse, but it is not the most curious aspect of this story or others that reported on Ballarin in 2009. Read More
A story that I have been working on for some time is being published this Sunday in the Washington Post magazine. “The Princess of Somalia” is a long feature with a great photo spread. If you live in the Beltway area, be sure to have a look.
The piece, which is unlike anything I have ever done, has been posted online today. I’ve been following this story since 2009, which is when I first met Michele Ballarin, who presented herself as someone who could tame Somali pirates and warlords and rebuild a broken country. She seemed to have the ear of Somali politicians and clan leaders; she also had a dubious background that didn’t take long to uncover. But the revolving door of associates she had in the U.S. military and intelligence community proved fascinating, so I followed that trail for a while, until it led me into a hall of mirrors.
Ballarin is such a colorful character that she was bound to pop up on the radar of other journalists. Read More
If you thought that the U.S. government shutdown was the top story at the Wall Street Journal today (print edition), you would be wrong. Instead, this headline took the honor:
U.S. Rises to No. 1 Energy Producer
At The Conversation:
There is a classic position in the science communication literature which goes, roughly, if you meet resistance to science, throw facts at those who resist. If that doesn’t work, throw more facts at them, and throw them harder.
This approach, though roundly debunked, is unfortunately still a common default.
The author did not write this in relation to the climate debate (though of course it applies). He is discussing counterproductive language, such as use of the “anti-science” tag, to characterize the purveyors of anti-GMO misinformation and scaremongering. Read More
For those of us fortunate enough to be born into the right circumstances, life is good, with antibiotics, modern dentistry, vaccines, climate-controlled homes, big-screen TV’s, smart phones.
The sum of this, however, is worrying to some: What is the toll to the planet, to the ecosystems that support us and the rich diversity of animals and plants? Are we, collectively, altering the earth in such ways that threaten our future existence? This is the concern that a number of scientists have expressed in recent years. Others have pushed back on such a gloomy prognosis.
There is a familiar ring to this debate. (Indeed, there is a new book that captures the ferociousness of it.) For decades, grim warnings of imminent “collapse” and “tipping points” have animated environmental discourse. Here is what Barry Commoner, one of the giants of modern environmentalism, wrote in his classic 1971 book, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man & Technology:
If we are to survive, we must understand why this collapse now threatens. Here, the issues become far more complex than even the ecosphere. Our assaults on the ecosystem are so powerful, so numerous, so finely interconnected, that although the damage they do is clear, it is very difficult to discover how it was done. By which weapon? In whose hand? Are we driving the ecosphere to destruction simply by our growing numbers? By our greedy accumulation of wealth? Or are the machines which we have built to gain this wealth–the magnificent technology that now feeds us out of neat packages, that clothes us in man-made fibers, that surrounds us with new chemical creations–at fault?
These assumptions and questions are still driving the conversation today. At least this is the contention I have made. Yes, there are new wrinkles, such as the climate change imperative and a new overarching framework, but the underlying themes articulated by Commoner over 40 years ago remain much the same.
One of these themes–our fraught relationship with technology–was taken up in a recent symposium called, “The Longevity of Human Civilization: Will We Survive Our World-Changing Technologies?”
My first thought: Well, we’ve made it this far, haven’t we? And jeez, look at where we started.
But I get that it’s a fun parlor game to think about what may finally do us in–or save our asses. And the issue of how we use our technological prowess is central to any musings over the fate of humanity. This particular conference–sponsored by NASA and the Library of Congress–asked big questions:
Will human civilization on Earth be imperiled, or enhanced, by our own world-changing technologies? Will our technological abilities threaten our survival as a species, or even threaten the Earth as a whole, or will we come to live comfortably with these new powers?