John Kerry made history this week by becoming the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Somalia, which is home to the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab.
Kerry reportedly never left the airport during his surprise visit to Somalian capital Mogadishu on Tuesday, which lasted nearly three hours. He met with Somalian President Hassan Sheik Mohamud and Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, as well as regional officials and civilian activists.
The trip was unannounced for security reasons, reports The Washington Post, adding that the country’s president and prime minister were kept in the dark. They had been told that a lower ranking official, an undersecretary, would be visiting.
Kerry’s trip to Somalia “will send a strong signal to al-Shabab that we are not turning our backs on the Somali people and that we will continue to engage with Somalia until we bring al-Shabab’s terror to an end,” a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. and its Western allies have been providing humanitarian and military aid to Somalia to help the country in its struggle to rebuild after two decades of war and prevent it from falling back under control of al-Shabab, which still uses territory it holds to launch attacks against neighboring nations, such as Kenya.
African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) peace-keeping forces and Somali troops, with support from U.S. unmanned drone strikes, have been able to push al-Shabab out of most of their strongholds.
“As everyone knows, more than 20 years ago the United States was forced to pull back from this country, and now we are returning in collaboration with the international community and with high hopes mixed, obviously, with ongoing concerns,” said Kerry just before leaving Somalia. “My brief visit confirms what diplomats have been telling me: The people here are both resilient and determined to reclaim their future from the terrorists and the militias who have been attempting to steal it.”
“His presence was intended to send a message: that the United States is ready to reengage with the country 24 years after it closed its embassy,” notes The Post. “In 1993, Mogadishu became a symbol of the limits of a superpower when Somali militia fighters shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 elite U.S. troops.”
The U.S. pulled its forces out of Somalia after that fatal incident.
President Obama has nominated Katherine Dhanani to serve as the first ambassador to Somalia since the early 1990s. Due to ongoing security threats in Somalia, however, she would be working out of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, making regular visits to neighboring Somalia.
“It’s historic,” said the senior State Department official told reporters, referring to Kerry’s visit. “I think it will send a strong signal to the Somali people of our commitment.”
Somalia has made some improvements since 2012, when it adopted a new constitution, appointed a parliament, and elected a president.
“We all have a stake in what happens here in Somalia. The world cannot afford to have places on the map that are essentially ungoverned,” said Kerry in Somalia. “We learned in 2001 what happens when that is the case, and we have seen on a continued basis with splinter groups how they are determined to try to do injury to innocent people and to whole nations by operating out of ungoverned spaces.”
Daud Aweis, a spokesman for the president, said that Kerry’s visit is “a big thing to Somalis,” adding that it came at “such a critical time,” referring to the upcoming presidential elections.
Kerry’s visit was a “great moment” for Somalia, President Mohamud reportedly told the U.S. secretary of State.
A day before the visit, Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide an additional $45 million in humanitarian aid to help the United Nations (U.N.) “protect and assist” nearly 600,000 refugees who have fled to Kenya, forced out of their homes in Somalia and South Sudan by civil unrest, terrorism and violence.
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