The improbable tale of a West Virginia heiress the Pentagon hired to take on Somalia's jihadists.
The MV Faina, a Ukrainian-owned merchant ship, was hugging
the coastline of Somalia as it steamed toward Mombasa, Kenya, in September
2008. But it would not reach its final port of call. As it navigated a
particularly treacherous stretch of water, more than a dozen armed men swarmed
the ship in motorized skiffs, taking the crew hostage. When they went down into
the ship's hold, the pirates couldn't believe their luck: The ship was carrying
a clandestine cargo of 33 Russian T-72 tanks, dozens of boxes of grenades, and
an arsenal of antiaircraft guns. The pirates had no way of knowing it, but the
cargo had been part of a secret effort by Kenya's government to arm militias in
southern Sudan in their fight against the government in Khartoum -- a violation
of a U.N. arms embargo. The Somali pirates had become experts in setting
ransoms based on the value of their cargo, and soon after the ship's capture
they began demanding as much as $35 million for a safe release of the crew, the
ship, and its sensitive cargo.
American Navy vessels surrounded the ship within days, but the hostage negotiations dragged on for weeks as the Ukrainian ship owners refused to cave to the pirates' demands. The pirates decided they wanted a new mediator for the negotiations, and scrawled a message onto a white sheet they draped over the Faina's railing.
The message was just one word long: AMIRA.
Within days, Michele "Amira" Ballarin, a flamboyant West Virginian heiress, was at the center of the tense hostage negotiations with a group of pirates holding a ship full of Russian tanks. By the time the pirates made their demand, Ballarin had already been working with a group of Somali clan elders to negotiate the ransom and end the standoff, although she would later deny that she had any financial interest in the negotiations. Her interest was purely humanitarian, she said, providing satellite phones so that pirates could communicate with Somali elders on shore and so the Faina's crew could communicate with their families. But the ship's Ukrainian owners grew angry about the meddling of this strange woman from West Virginia. Hers was an unwanted presence; they figured she was only driving up the price of getting their crew and cargo released. "She has to understand that offering criminals a huge amount of money, which by the way she doesn't have -- she is only giving them false hope," said a company spokesman.
Ukraine's government even intervened. In early February 2009, just weeks after the Obama administration took office, Ukraine foreign minister Volodymyr Ohryzko wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the woman who, he said with a flourish, had "become an intermediary of the sea corsairs." Ballarin's actions, the Ukrainian minister went on, "incite the pirates to the groundless increase of the ransom sum," and he asked Clinton "to facilitate the exclusion of [her] from the negotiation process with the pirates."
Hillary Clinton would have had no reason to know who Michele Ballarin was before receiving the letter from the Ukrainian minister, but plenty of other American officials did. By the time President Obama came into office, Ballarin had been given a contract with the Pentagon to gather intelligence inside Somalia, just one of the myriad projects for which she had tried to gain the approval of the United States government, with varying degrees of success.
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Since 2006, Ballarin had been trying to organize a Sufi resistance to fight Wahhabi militant groups in Somalia. After several trips to the region in which she met with the leaders of the country's feckless Transitional Federal Government, the wealthy American heiress had developed something of a cult following in some sectors of the Somali political class. She claimed to train and breed Lipizzaner stallions -- the famous white horses that performed dressage -- and wore her wealth wherever she went. She traveled with Louis Vuitton bags, expensive jewelry, and Gucci clothing. If the idea was to dazzle the residents of one of the world's poorest countries, it had the intended effect. Somalis began referring to her by a one-word moniker, the Arabic word for "princess." They called her "Amira."
It was a long way from West Virginia, where she had first made a name for herself during the 1980s as a Republican candidate in a staunchly Democratic state. She had tried to piggyback on Ronald Reagan's popularity in the hopes of winning a congressional seat representing Morgantown, the location of West Virginia University. Just 31 years old at the time, she had funded much of her 1986 campaign with money from her first husband, a man several decades older than her who had landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day and amassed a small fortune as a real-estate developer. But she also hustled to raise money on the campaign trail by showing off her skills as a concert pianist during political fund-raisers. Trying to paint the Democratic incumbent as out of step with the values of West Virginian families, she criticized her opponent during the final weeks of the campaign for his vote to spend taxpayer money to print Playboy in Braille. She even made hay of his refusal to show up to one debate by cutting up a piece of cardboard, pasting his face on it, and debating him anyway. She was roundly defeated in the election.
After the death of her first husband, she married Gino Ballarin, a bartender at Manhattan's 21 Club who later became a manager at the private Georgetown Club, in Washington. The couple threw parties at their home in Virginia, eventually earning themselves a listing in The Green Book, a directory of "socially prominent Washingtonians" that was a bible for the city's old-money elite. In 1997, she spoke to a reporter about how pleased she was to get into The Green Book with all her friends, neighbors, and other "supporters of equine sports."
"The book symbolizes old ways of doing things which have really rattled against change," she said. "It symbolizes a gentler way of going about living."
The Ballarins by then were living on an estate in Markham, Virginia, with the grand name Wolf's Crag. It was once the home of Turner Ashby, a Confederate cavalry commander who gained fame during Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign and earned the nickname "The Black Knight of the Confederacy." But Michele Ballarin seemed to have bigger plans than living a genteel life of polo matches and lawn parties. During the 1990s and early 2000s she began a number of business ventures, from real-estate development to international finance to selling body armor.
As she describes it, it was a casual meeting with a group of Somali Americans set up by a friend of hers from the Freemason lodge in Washington that sparked her interest in the war-racked country, and the transformation of Michele into Amira began. She started traveling to Africa, and soon the devoutly Christian woman who played the organ at her church each Sunday became entranced by the teachings of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam once dominant on the Indian subcontinent and North Africa. Sufism had lost ground after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire had spawned more muscular forms of Islam, but it is still practiced widely in Somalia. Ballarin became convinced that promoting Sufi groups inside the country was the best way to diminish what she saw as a toxic influence of strict Wahhabism that had gained a foothold in the Horn of Africa with the help of rich Saudi donors, who sent money there to build radical schools and mosques.
Her public work in Somalia made her appear like just another rich do-gooder pushing airy-fairy development projects, but there was a darker side to her projects. When the Islamic Courts Union took control in Mogadishu in 2006, she saw an opportunity to take advantage of the vast ungoverned areas in Somalia to set up bases for a resistance movement to drive the Islamists out of power, as well as to nurture business ventures in the country. The horsewoman of Virginia would insert herself into the chaos.
Using a number of different front companies with vague and portentous names like BlackStar, Archangel, and the Gulf Security Group, Ballarin hatched several new ventures designed to make her an indispensable partner to the American military and intelligence services. She converted an historic hotel in rural Virginia, into a secure facility -- with reinforced walls and encrypted locks -- that she hoped the CIA or Pentagon might use to store classified information. She was unsuccessful in getting any government agencies to rent the space.
She hired a number of retired American military officers and spies to help her get meetings with senior members of Washington's national security establishment. Working with a former Army sergeant major named Perry Davis, a stocky retired Green Beret with years of military service in Southeast Asia, Ballarin briefly considered the idea of scouting for bases on remote islands in the Philippines and Indonesia she thought could be used to train indigenous troops for clandestine counterterrorist missions, but mostly she kept her focus on Africa.
In August 2007, she wrote a letter to the CIA in which she announced herself as the president of Gulf Security Group, a company based in the United Arab Emirates with a "singular objective": hunting and killing "Al Qai'da terrorist networks, infrastructure and personnel in the Horn of Africa." The letter went on: "Gulf Security Group is owned and controlled by the undersigned United States citizens with no foreign interests or influence. We have deep relationships with indigenous clans and political leaders in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and throughout the Horn of Africa, including the Islamic Courts Union, and those who control their militant and jihadist activities. These relationships will enable successful mission outcome without fingerprint, footprint or flag, and provide total deniability."
To such a breathtaking proposal, a CIA lawyer sent back a terse response. "The CIA is not interested in your unsolicited proposal and does not authorize you to undertake any activities on its behalf. I am returning your proposal," wrote John L. McPherson, the agency's associate general counsel.
Having been denied the opportunity to kill for the CIA, Ballarin next proposed spying for the military. In this, she had greater success. In the spring of 2008, Ballarin and Perry Davis arrived at a nondescript office building across from the Pentagon, where they had a meeting at the headquarters of the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. The CTTSO is a small outfit with a modest budget for giving seed money to classified military counterterrorism programs, and a contact inside the Pentagon had helped set up the meeting for Ballarin. But few inside the CTTSO office knew the first thing about the well-dressed woman standing before them. Introducing herself as the head of a company called BlackStar, Ballarin was blunt. "I'm going to fix Somalia," she said.
Ballarin and Davis outlined a plan to set up a humanitarian food program that would be a cover to collect intelligence. Pallets of food aid would arrive by ship at a Somali port, be loaded onto trucks, and be driven to aid stations her team was planning to set up around the country. According to the plan, the Somalis who arrived at the food stations would give their names and other identifying information, and in return they would receive identification cards. The information gathered at the food stations, Ballarin told the military officials, could be fed into Pentagon databases and used both to map Somalia's complex tribal structure and, possibly, to help the United States hunt the leaders of al Shabaab.
Ballarin said she would fund much of the program out of her own pocket but was looking for both the Pentagon's blessing and additional funding. Ballarin and Davis gave few specifics about how they intended to make the operation work, but they managed to sell the plan. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon office promised BlackStar an initial sum of approximately $200,000, with a pledge for more if the program began to show promise. For the first time, Michele Ballarin had received the American government's imprimatur for clandestine work in Africa.
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A number of factors had converged to pave Michele Ballarin's path for the intelligence-gathering operation in Somalia. The first, and most obvious, was the lack of any solid information about a country that some in Washington had vague fears about becoming a terror state in the mold of Afghanistan as it was before the September 11 attacks. The CIA was consumed by the drone war in Pakistan and supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the agency with few resources for spying inside Somalia. Besides, with the CIA still feeling burned by 2006's disastrous covert campaign with warlords there, few in Langley had much interest at the time in wading back into the Somali muck. They also weren't sure it was worth it: During his exit interview with reporters at the end of the Bush administration, CIA director Michael Hayden dismissed the al Shabaab movement as insignificant.
At the same time, however, the Pentagon was beginning a push to escalate clandestine activities throughout Africa: from the Horn, across the Arab states of the northern part of the continent, to western countries like Nigeria. The creation of U.S. Africa Command in the fall of 2008, the Pentagon's first military headquarters devoted exclusively to operations in Africa, was another sign of increased attention to the world's second-largest and second-most-populous continent, after years of relative neglect. The Pentagon had a brand new military command post in Stuttgart, Germany -- but not the intelligence to support any operations.
Nor a clear idea about exactly whom to support inside Somalia. Just months after President Barack Obama took office, the new administration announced a decision to ship 40 tons of weapons and ammunition to Somalia's embattled Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the United Nations-backed government that was considered by Somalis to be as corrupt as it was weak. By 2009 the TFG already controlled little territory beyond several square miles inside Mogadishu, and President Obama's team was in a panic over the possibility that an al Shabaab offensive in the capital might push the government out of central Mogadishu. With an embargo in place prohibiting foreign weapons from flooding into Somalia, the administration had to get U.N. approval for the arms shipments. The first weapons delivery arrived in June 2009, but Somali government troops didn't keep them for long. Instead, they sold the weapons that Washington had purchased for them in Mogadishu weapons bazaars. The arms market collapsed, and a new supply of cheap weapons was made available to al Shabaab fighters. By the end of the summer, American-made M16s could be found at the bazaars for just $95, and a more coveted AK-47 could be purchased for just $5 more.
Clearly, the campaign in the Horn of Africa was still being waged in a haphazard and scattershot manner, with the United States conducting an outsourced war using proxy forces and warlords. Somalia was considered a threat, but not enough of a peril to merit an American military campaign there. So the doors opened for contractors like Ballarin, who offered to fill the intelligence void.
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The contract the Pentagon awarded Ballarin gave her clout during her frequent trips to East Africa, where she boasted about her ties to the American government during private meetings with various Somali factions. Each trip brought new business opportunities, and as Somalia emerged as the world's epicenter of international piracy, she saw the windfall that could come from acting as an intermediary in the ransom negotiations. Ballarin's primary contact from the Pentagon office that awarded her the contract had pushed her to develop relations with the clans in Somalia with close ties to the pirate networks, and by the time the pirates displayed the AMIRA sign from the Faina's hull she had designs on becoming the go-to ransom negotiator. She said publicly that her interests in negotiating were purely humanitarian, but privately Ballarin told some of her employees that taking a cut of the ransom payments could be lucrative as the scourge of piracy worsened. "She had this dream of handling all of the negotiations, and getting rich," said Bill Deininger, a former colleague. In one interview she told a reporter that her goal was to "unwind all seventeen ships and all 450 people" that Somali pirates were currently holding.
Deininger was one of a number of disgruntled former employees who became disillusioned with Ballarin and quit working for her when they thought she had failed to deliver on her many promises. Some retired military officers she had hired to work for her various companies put up some of their own money when they joined Ballarin's service, and felt burned when they didn't recoup their investment. Although the Pentagon gave her seed money for her information-gathering project in 2008, she struggled to get a steady stream of money from government contracts, and cut ties with many of her partners.
And yet she maintained the appearance of a lavish lifestyle in the rolling hills of Virginia beyond the Washington beltway. She continued to court senior American military and intelligence officials, often at the large brick mansion that she rented, which doubled as an antiques store and sat on 110 acres that was once the domain of horse farms but more recently had become part of Washington's sprawling exurbs. She entertained American and African officials in the mansion's dining room, a space decorated with antique vases, hunting prints, and a large gallery of photos of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Bedecked in jewelry and sometimes caressing a string of prayer beads, she presided over the meetings at the head of a large antique table. At regular intervals, Davis would get up and refill visitors' teacups with a sweet blend of Kenyan black tea with cardamom, cloves, and other spices.
Ballarin continued to make trips to East Africa, building up ties to factions inside Somalia united by their adherence to Sufism. And she eventually developed a catchphrase for her work inside Somalia: She was providing "organic solutions" to problems that had festered for decades, solutions that couldn't be enacted by foreign governments or what she saw as meddlesome outside groups like the United Nations.
During an interview with the Voice of America she spoke about a "soft-sided" approach, eschewing violence. "The Somalis have seen enough conflict, they've seen enough private military companies, they've seen bloodshed, they've seen enough gunpowder, they've seen enough bullets," she said. "All the ugly things that have created a generation of young people who don't know anything else. Why would anyone who cares deeply about this culture want to perpetuate that? It's not the way forward; it really isn't."
But her definition of an "organic solution" was clearly elastic. In early 2009, not long after the Farina standoff was resolved (with no evidence of Ballarin's direct involvement in extracting a $3 million ransom from the Ukrainian ship owners), she tried to help a group of Somali hit men kill five prominent al Shabaab operatives who were gathering for a meeting in Mogadishu. All they needed, she said, were silencers for their handguns.
In her telling of the story, the details of which a former American government official confirmed, she was sitting in her suite at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski, the only five-star hotel in the tiny, impoverished nation. The hotel was hosting an international conference to select the next leaders of Somalia's anemic transitional government -- a literal gathering of the clans. After negotiations in conference rooms and poolside, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate former commander of the Islamic Courts Union, was chosen to run the country. In the middle of one night, a group of Somalis knocked on Ballarin's door and took her to meet a senior official of Somalia's new transitional government. There, the Somali official told her that he had been in contact with a senior al Shabaab operative who was interested in switching sides and joining the government.
The informant knew about an upcoming gathering of al Shabaab leaders and was offering --
with America's blessing -- to kill them all. His list of needs was short: His men would need some training with handguns, and silencers to ensure that the operation could be carried out as discreetly as possible. And the defector wanted the United States to put up money to help the widows and children of the slain al Shabaab leaders.
When Ballarin returned to the United States, she and Davis contacted a small group of military officers they knew at the Pentagon. As she saw it, this was not a difficult decision, and she later recalled with a measure of anger what she told the military officials with whom she had met. "This is manna from heaven! Take it!" she recalled telling the military men.
But the Americans balked. If the Joint Special Operations Command was going to bless the operation, the Americans were going to do it themselves. But Ballarin thought that having Somalis -- rather than American commandos or other foreign proxies -- kill the top echelon of al Shabaab in one blow would be especially crippling for an indigenous terror organization. "This is an organic solution," she said. "You don't dispatch SEAL teams. This is Somali-style, and this isn't pleasant stuff we're talking about."
When she recalled the episode several years later, she spoke wistfully about what might have been. "All they wanted was silencers."