THE UNITED STATES has maintained an arms-length diplomatic relationship with Somalia since two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu in 1993. But an increase in activity in recent years is set to culminate this weekend, with the quiet opening of a renovated and expanded building that will apparently serve as an unofficial U.S. embassy or consulate in Mogadishu, according to diplomatic and other sources in the city. The facility will allow for a permanent diplomatic presence in the country, a place for the U.S. to host meetings and for limited staff to be based.
U.S. officials are reluctant to discuss the building and its intended uses; the government seems keen to indicate it is neither an embassy nor a consular office. However, in a sign of the apparent importance of the building, the new U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Donald Yamamoto, who is based in neighboring Kenya, arrived in Mogadishu this week and is expected to formally inaugurate the facility on Saturday. Despite requests, the State Department would not allow an Intercept reporter to attend the opening ceremony.
The U.S. has not had an embassy or consulate in Somalia since 1991, when Americans were evacuated amid an anti-government uprising that catalyzed the complete collapse of the Somali state and deepened a long and bloody civil war. Relations between the U.S. and Somalia took a historic turn two years later with the “Black Hawk Down” incident, which took place during a U.S.-led military intervention precipitated by food shortages and political chaos. In that famous incident, two U.S. military helicopters were shot down, and a total of 18 American soldiers were killed during a raid to capture allies of a Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid. The Black Hawks crashed into Bakara, the main market in Mogadishu, sparking a 15-hour gun battle; the bodies of some of the U.S. soldiers were dragged through the streets. Those gory images and the subsequent national horror have since shaped U.S. policy abroad, influencing former President Bill Clinton’s decision not to put boots on the ground to intervene in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or in Bosnia.
The U.S. building is located in Mogadishu’s equivalent of what was known as the “Green Zone” in Baghdad during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. At the moment, the vast majority of foreigners who come to the Somali capital do not even leave the massive airport complex-cum-military base that stretches across a section of the Mogadishu shoreline. The compound, secured by blast walls, is protected by the African Union Mission in Somalia and is entirely segregated from the rest of the city. Even Somali politicians entering the compound have to go through airport-style security managed by Ugandan soldiers. Along with the United Nations camp and security contractors, the U.K. and the EU keep embassies inside the airport. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States have embassies in the city proper (a move greatly appreciated by the public, many of whom find it offensive that foreigners would come to work in their country but never actually leave the airport compound).
That the building is technically not an embassy or a consulate, but has been fixed up for diplomatic uses in the renovation, is likely a compromise between government officials pushing for a concrete diplomatic presence, and those who are more gun shy. But Americans, foreigners, and Somalis who work in the airport compound refer to the building as “the embassy” in passing, and the distinction will likely remain a technicality on the ground. It is not known if the American flag will be raised outside of this building.
During former Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise visit to Somalia in 2015, U.S. officials floated plans to reinstate an embassy before the end of the Obama administration’s term. A building was at least partially erected but over time the U.S. has been walking back plans for its completion. The likely factors for the delay are increased safety-guidelines instituted in the wake of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in Libya, in 2012, and the continuously delicate security situation in Somalia.
The militant group al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda offshoot, is omnipresent and active in Somalia, and contributes to a high level of insecurity. Less than two weeks ago, at least 50 people were killed in dual car bombs in Mogadishu. Small-scale attacks and assassinations are a regular occurrence, and last year, al Shabaab staged a particularly bloody attack, bombing a busy junction at rush hour and killing between 500 and 1,000 people.
Since the Black Hawk incident, the U.S. has generally kept diplomatic staffers out of Somalia, while contributing significant amounts of humanitarian assistance and conducting drone strikes and airstrikes to destabilize al Shabaab, which is at war with the internationally recognized government in Mogadishu. In recent years, most U.S. diplomatic activity on the ground has consisted of day visits to the capital.
While the diplomatic footprint has been light, the U.S. has continued to bolster itself militarily in Somalia. In 2015, news broke about secret U.S. drone bases where a handful of special forces were stationed. One of those bases was at Baledogle, which has been fast expanding and is now a forward operating base with hundreds of beds. Last month, the Pentagon invested $12 million for “emergency runway repairs” there.
Reporting for this story was supported with funding from the Investigative Fund.
Amanda Sperber is an East Africa-based freelance foreign correspondent.
This briefing was originally written for the Intercept (https://theintercept.com)