Residents and visitors gather on the coral bluffs overlooking the rugged coastline bordering Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport. Photo by Larry Socha
By Larry Socha
Somalia is a land of nicknames. There are call signs within the embassy, to be sure, but Somalis are far more creative. A Somali National Army soldier goes by “little liver” for his ability to go long periods of time without food, a questionable anatomical designation. One former president is known as “Farmaajo,” taken from the Italian for cheese, ostensibly for his childhood love of the dairy product. Even the word used for president is madahweyne, which literally means “big head.” Mogadishu itself is known locally as Hamar, referring to the area’s red soil. Visitors in the mid-20th century knew it as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. By any name, Mogadishu hosts one of the newest permanent U.S. diplomatic missions in the world in a dynamic corner of the African continent.
The U.S. embassy returned to Mogadishu in 2019 after a nearly 30-year absence. The current U.S. embassy compound is approximately three miles southeast of the old facility, which Ambassador James Bishop, 60 Americans, and several other foreign nationals left by helicopter in the early days of January 1991. Today, most country team members reside at the embassy compound located within Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport. Multiple team members also support Mission Somalia from their permanent assignment to Nairobi, Kenya. A regular rotation of Mission staff from Nairobi on temporary duty assignments balances the Mission’s foreign policy objectives with a challenging security situation.
The instability that followed the collapse of the Somali government in the 1990s persists. Over the past 15 years, the terrorist organization al-Shabaab has grown into al-Qaida’s largest and wealthiest affiliate, capable of conducting complex attacks against Somali security forces, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, and domestic and regional soft targets. In October 2022, two car bombs exploded in Mogadishu at a busy intersection adjacent to the Ministry of Education, killing more than 100 people. Mogadishu’s airport has been the target of al-Shabaab mortar and rocket attacks. Working closely with the Regional Security Office, the Mission team travels throughout the airport complex among the various government offices, foreign embassies, and other meeting locations, though travel into central Mogadishu is prohibited.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, elected in May 2022, pledged to defeat al-Shabaab through a three-pronged approach to degrade its ability to conduct attacks, disrupt its illicit financing, and discredit its ideology of hatred. Making progress on that pledge, the Somali-initiated military campaign has liberated more than 100 towns and villages across central Somalia in the past year. The United States continues close security cooperation with the federal government, including through joint Department of State and Department of Defense assistance to the Somali National Army’s Danab Advanced Infantry Brigade. Likewise, the Bureau of Counterterrorism’s Office of Programs and the Department of Defense’s Africa Command Threat Finance Cell support Somalia’s Financial Reporting Center (FRC), the country’s financial intelligence unit and focal point for disrupting al-Shabaab’s finances. The embassy recognized FRC Director Amina Mohamed as its Woman of Courage in March for her brave and effective work to freeze suspected al-Shabaab assets and limit the organization’s ability to transfer funds.
Tight coordination and communication among Mission members, including the U.S. military, which returned to persistent presence in Somalia shortly after Mohamud’s election, focus on the advances made by the Somali people. Mission-supported stabilization assistance and activities consolidate military gains, improve lives, and increase confidence in the Somali government. The town of Aadan Yabaal, liberated by Somali security forces in December 2022, had been under al-Shabaab control for nearly 14 years. Since liberation, many residents who fled the town have returned. Economic activity has increased. Women play a more significant role in public life. As the Mission continues to work with the Somali government to conduct outreach, install streetlights, and repair water wells in the district, expectations remain high, and the absence of a school and local government offices indicates much work remains.
Increased travel to cities around Somalia over the past year with the support of U.S. military and chartered aircraft has strengthened the U.S.-Somalia partnership through diplomatic engagement beyond the capital and oversight of humanitarian, development, and security programs. Members of the Mission team have repeatedly visited Baidoa, the epicenter of Somalia’s catastrophic drought. Five consecutive seasons of below-average rains contributed to the current drought, the country’s longest on record. However, due to a U.S.-led surge of humanitarian resources to the most vulnerable Somalis, food security monitors’ worst food insecurity projections did not come to fruition. USAID’s partnership with the U.N. World Food Program reached more than four million Somalis—the largest caseload the U.N. agency has ever served in the country—each month from August to December 2022. Likewise, USAID partners’ scale-up of health, nutrition, protection, shelter, water, sanitation, and hygiene support staved off even more severe drought-induced outcomes. While humanitarian needs remain extremely high with an estimated 6.6 million people facing acute food insecurity, Mission Somalia continues to engage on the ground with political and community leaders as well as international and NGO partners to get assistance into the hands of those who need it most. Additional trips to Kismaayo, Baledogle Airfield, Garoowe, and Hargeysa have likewise advanced the Mission’s diplomatic, defense, and development goals and ensured countrywide U.S. engagement.
Links between Somalia and the large Somali diaspora in the United States remain strong. Somalia’s Independence Day—July 1—is celebrated with music, dance, and street parties in Minneapolis, Minn.; Columbus, Ohio; and Fargo, N.D. More than 30 members of the Federal Parliament of Somalia are American citizens. Wire transfers from friends and family in the United States make up a large part of the more than $1.3 billion remitted globally every year to Somalia. While U.S. consular services remain limited owing to the security situation, robust familial, economic, and cultural ties unite citizens of both countries. Engagements by the chief of mission, embassy participation in Minnesota’s annual Somali Week celebration, and partnerships through public diplomacy initiatives at the local university American Corner and the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs leverage the knowledge and networks of Somali Americans in service of the Mission’s economic and democratic goals.
Back in Mogadishu, the two or three officers that comprise most embassy sections collaboratively (yet remotely) work with locally employed staff based in Nairobi. Close professional relationships with interagency counterparts in Nairobi, Djibouti, Stuttgart, and Washington also help advance Mission goals.
Appreciated as an international partner and leader, Embassy Mogadishu maintains a steady rhythm of visitors from Somali government ministers and presidents of the federal member states to key opposition, civil society, and business leaders. Somalia’s strong oral heritage lends itself to social media use among elites that stretches long into the evening. Vociferous social media conversations and constant WhatsApp messages belie the 14% internet penetration across the country.
The U.S. ambassador to Somalia, deputy chief of mission, USAID mission director, and medical practitioner have the only private offices in the embassy’s workspace. The open plan across the embassy’s two floors facilitates communication among the team, a collaborative approach, and strong esprit de corps. Access to the beach, high-energy volleyball tournaments, or a sunset and cool breeze overlooking the Indian Ocean round out most days for the team in Mogadishu. By Thursday, the common room of the fused chancery and residence hosts a social or movie night complete with movie theater-style recliners and pizza ordered in from the adjacent U.N. compound, known to have the best pies within the airport. While goat or camel can be easily found within the airport, locally caught tuna and lobster often prove more popular for a special meal.
Most visitors to the embassy pause to review the photo gallery in the building’s entrance featuring U.S. presidential engagements with Somali leaders. The most popular photo is usually the black and white print featuring President John F. Kennedy and Somali Prime Minister Abdirashid Shermarke reviewing troops on the White House South Lawn during arrival ceremonies in November 1962. The prominence and mutual respect of the U.S.-Somalia partnership is perfectly captured. Just a few steps beyond, sunny and sandy hellos and goodbyes among the Mission team and Somali partners continue the work begun decades ago. The Somali people and their leaders have achieved progress toward a peaceful and prosperous future, considerably recovering from the depths plumbed in the 1990s and the departure of U.S. diplomats earlier that decade. Self-sustaining progress and Somalia’s role as a net contributor to regional peace and prosperity will require more time and investment. Post’s team works every day to bring that future closer.
Larry Socha was the public affairs officer in Mogadishu.