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Environment

The Amira Chronicles (Playing with Spies)

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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. According to the Observer, leaked emails revealed a budding scheme to help Yusef build a private army to fight off Islamists. In one email that Ballarin sent to several individuals, including one working for a Florida-based military company, she said:

Boys: Successful meeting with President Abdullay Yussef [sic] and his chief of staff personnel in Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday…where he invited us to his private hotel suite flacked by security detail. He has appointed his chief of presidential protocol as our go to during this phase.

Ballarin mentioned a “closed-door meeting” with a senior UN representative and said she had been give “carte blanche” to use three bases in Somalia “and the air access to reach them.” She also referred to apparent CIA involvement or interest in the plan:

My contact whom we discussed from the agency side requested an in-person meeting with me. I arrived in New York at 2340 last night and was driven to Virginia—arriving at 0200 today.

The plot never went forward (and like much involving Ballarin, it may well have been smoke & mirrors), but as New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti writes in his recent book on the CIA and its outsourcing of military operations, Ballarin was not deterred:

Using a number of different front companies with vague and portentous names like Blackstar, Archangel, and the Gulf Security Group, she hatched several new ventures designed to make her an indispensable partner to the American military and intelligence services.

Ballarin recruited Beltway insiders to help her get traction. “She had some heavy hitters in DOD [Department of Defense] and intelligence,” a former associate of hers has told me. Indeed, as Mazzetti writes:

She hired a number of retired American military officers and spies, including the former CIA officer Ross Newland who had left the spy agency to become a consultant, to help her get meetings with senior members of Washington’s national security establishment.

Ballarin has been masterful at parlaying these contacts into numerous gambits that ex-CIA and high-ranking military officers would have a hand in. How does that happen? A former associate of hers roped into one such scheme (along with his colleagues) explains in my story:

Michele was talking about her intelligence ties all the time, and that was validated by all these old hands you see in one room. People play off each other. So basically, what you’re doing and bringing to the table gets validated by seeing other people that you know are legit.

It would take a few months before "all these old hands" realized they were being played. Then she would move on to a new scheme, with a new set of players (who had no inkling of any of this). And so it went, I learned, a great Kabuki entertainment that repeated itself over and over again.

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