Pirates and warlords aside, Michele Ballarin believes she can turn Somalia around
In late 2008, media outlets reported that a wealthy Northern Virginia businesswoman was negotiating with Somali pirates for the release of a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian vessel stocked with Soviet-era tanks and grenade launchers. “I’m in communication with both ships on a regular basis,” Michele Ballarin informed the press. She had recently returned from Somalia to her 191-year-old estate in Fauquier County.
Somalia experts were puzzled; they had never heard of her. But news that she was a trusted confidante of Somali pirates and warlords emerged just as the pirate crisis was exploding on the world stage, frustrating the U.S. and other governments, which seemed powerless to keep ships from being seized.
Ballarin boasted to reporters that she had a plan to bring peace and prosperity to the beleaguered country. After two decades of strife, some Somalis grabbed onto her like a lifeline. The pirates called her Amira, which means “princess” in Arabic.
Not everybody was so enamored. A senior government official told ABC News: “It’s pretty sad when a horse-country socialite has more sway in Somalia than the whole U.S. government.”
Ballarin’s genteel neighbors were dumbstruck. On a media Web site, one wrote that he knew Ballarin. “Have been to her house in Fauquier County. I would never, never have thought that this diminutive lady who wears Ferragamo shoes out in the country would be involved in something like this.”
As it turned out, Ballarin was not able to free those ships (other intermediaries did). But word of “Amira” had spread, and by 2009, Ballarin was friendly with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the incoming president of Somalia. He named Ballarin his “presidential advisor for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.”
During much of Ahmed’s four-year tenure, Somalia was in a downward spiral. Only an influx of African Union soldiers from neighboring countries kept his government from being toppled by Islamic extremists. In 2011, a drought and famine claimed the lives of 250,000 Somalis. But by the time Ahmed left the presidency last September, the perennial failed state was edging back from the abyss.
Now Ahmed, 49, and Ballarin, 58, have joined forces again. This summer they formed a Virginia-based nonprofit called the Oasis Foundation for Hope. Its ambitious aim is the resettlement of Somalia’s 1.1 million refugees, 385,000 of whom live in a sprawling, crowded encampment in Dadaab, a town in eastern Kenya that borders Somalia.
To those familiar with headlines out of Somalia in recent years, the notion of moving hundreds of thousands of refugees back to their embattled homeland might seem preposterous. Security remains tenuous, with the Islamic extremist group al-Shababweakened but still lethal. Longstanding clan divisions are flaring anew, sparking violence between warlords.
“This is the right time to do this,” Ahmed insisted when I met with him and Ballarin at a 110-acre estate in Warrenton in May. The brick manor doubles as Ballarin’s office and the home of Perry Davis, a former Green Beret and her business partner. Ahmed spent two days huddled there with Ballarin and Davis over Memorial Day weekend. They mapped out logistics and pored over mock-up designs of resettlement villages, the first of which is slated to break ground by year’s end.
There was a heady sense of optimism in the meeting, also attended by Michael Kirtley, a former writer for National Geographic who has reported on Africa for 40 years and is the Oasis Foundation for Hope’s media strategist. “This is one of the most positive things I’ve seen in this part of Africa,” he said.
I had witnessed this infectious enthusiasm in the Warrenton conference room before. I’d met some of the smart, highly credentialed teams Ballarin put together in previous years, people drawn to her charm and her missionary quest to pacify a country torn apart by decades of civil war. And I’d learned how frustrated some became by a lack of progress and how they’d ultimately come to feel disillusioned with Ballarin.
“She has an amazing ability to attract very powerful people,” said Esther Herbert, a medical consultant who worked with Ballarin on a similar Somali initiative from 2008 to 2010. “Then it all falls apart.”
Or, as Geoff Whiting, a retired naval intelligence officer who partnered with Herbert and Ballarin during the same time frame, put it:
“The problem with Michele is separating fact from fiction. What is real, and what is made up?”
During my first extended interview with Ballarin in 2009, she talked about the adoration she is showered with when she travels in Somalia: “These are people who are searching to come together again. It’s something I have fought long and hard for, and they know that,” she said. “Therefore, when I go in-country, my name has so preceded me — ‘Amira is coming, Amira will listen to us.’ I am accepted as one of them ... from all sides of this conflict. I’m talking good guys, bad guys, warlords, al-Shabab, across the board.”
I’d seen media reports that suggested she had companies with ties to the U.S. intelligence community; one story hinted at a 2006 covert operation she was involved in to prop up Abdullahi Yusuf, another besieged “transitional” Somali president. What was she really up to in Somalia?
“I have no agenda,” she responded. “I have a purpose. My purpose is to honor the word I’ve given to every Somali I’ve spent all these years working with. To help them find their way out of the darkness and into nationhood again, with respect, with pride, with as little bloodshed as possible and with as little outside interference as can be managed.”
In the late 2000s, pirates were seizing commercial ships and accruing hostages like poker chips. In Mogadishu and outlying areas, brutal Islamic extremists terrorized the population, chopping off hands and feet for petty crimes. Wasn’t she worried about getting abducted or killed by the bad guys?
Ballarin looked at me as if I didn’t understand who she was. “They would have a tsunami on their hands,” she said with a tight smile. “When I was in the north at one point, there was close to 80,000 people trying to get to me. They call me the ‘Mother of Somalia.’ ... There would be terrible repercussions.”
She had plans to establish a Somali coast guard to gainfully employ the “Somali boys,” her term for the youths who had turned to piracy. They were apparently pining for her. “I get so many calls,” she said. Mimicking one of the callers, Ballarin spoke in a child’s voice: “ ‘Amira, what day back?’ ”
“It’s like when you leave your 2-year-old in the day-care center, and he wants you to come back. I have 9 million children.”
In 2010, I visited Ballarin and Davis several times at their Warrenton headquarters. They were working on a plan to implement the “organic solution,” what Ballarin calls her nation-building plan for Somalia. (This included banking and commercial airline endeavors, the latter of which she had named Oasis Aviation Group.) They assembled consultants and experts in construction, security, communications, military intelligence and agriculture.
The group set out laying the groundwork for multimillion-dollar development projects across Somalia. Ballarin referred to it as her Marshall Plan for Somalia. Everybody had an assigned task and code name — for security purposes, they were told.
Chainsaw (Dwayne Deininger), a former naval telecommunications specialist, was in charge of communications. Bonesaw (William Deininger), a construction and waste management professional, oversaw building design. Others included Mermaid (Esther Herbert), a medical consultant; Captain (Geoff Whiting), a retired naval intelligence officer; and Windmills (Karel Eekels), a Dutchman and port infrastructure specialist. The Vicar (Jonathan Ostman), the rector at the Anglican Church of St. John the Baptist in Marshall, Va., where Ballarin plays organ during Sunday services, “blessed their work” (as she told the group) and helped set up a nonprofit organization and Web site (since taken down).
Atop the chain of command sat the Field Marshall (Perry Davis, a former command sergeant major with the U.S. Special Forces), who drew up border security plans, and Amira, the mastermind of it all.
During Friday call-ins, Ballarin would update everyone on potential new investors. One week it was the Emir of Qatar, the week after, Queen Noor of Jordan.
The work was all pro bono, though they anticipated getting paid once funding came in. Several had lent Ballarin tens of thousands of dollars for start-up costs, which they say they never recouped. (She disputes this and characterizes the accusations as “sensationalism.”) Nine months after the team was assembled, nearly all, except Ostman, stopped their involvement.
During the weekly conference calls, a map of Africa was spread across the table. At the top stood two toy dolls, a man and a woman. They were dressed in matching camouflage and toting guns.
There is little in Ballarin’s pre-Amira life to suggest that she would one day become enmeshed in Somali politics. In 1979, she married Edward Golden, whom she had met two years earlier when she was an undergraduate at West Virginia University, in Morgantown. She spotted him one day at the ballet school in town (he was a sponsor) where she was taking a class. “He was sitting in his white Brooks Brothers and seersucker suit,” she remembers. Golden had a lucrative real estate business. He was also 35 years older than she was. Their union was a “big shock” to her family, she recounted.
When her son was born in 1981, Ballarin was 26 and her husband was 61. The new parents set up house in Morgantown. Ballarin — then Michele Golden — stayed home to raise her boy, sew and teach music. “My grandmother taught me early on that women should know how to properly sew and to play the piano,” Ballarin recalled.
The young mother soon became active in local Republican politics. In 1986, she ran for Congress. She won the GOP nomination but lost in the general election to the Democratic incumbent. After that, Ballarin threw herself into sewing. She specialized in christening gowns, which she says she sold to Macy’s and customers in England. In the mid-1980s Ballarin started designing children’s clothes. “I was known as the Coco Chanel in the children’s industry,” she told me.
In the mid-1990s, after her marriage broke up, Ballarin was adrift. She found work as an executive assistant for an orthodontist in Leesburg. Suddenly, she was a struggling single mother in her 30s. Around this time, she met Esther Herbert, a dental consultant. They became friendly. “She showed up in my driveway one day with her son in the back seat,” Herbert recalled. “She had no money for a hotel.” Herbert took them in for a stretch.
The hard times didn’t last long. Within a few years, Michele remarried. Her new husband, Gino Ballarin, was a longtime maitre d’ at the 21 Club in New York and decades older. After relocating to Markham, Va., Gino obtained a similar job with a private Georgetown club, and Michele took up investment banking, eventually gaining the accounts of several wealthy clients. She mingled in horse breeding and polo charity circles. By the late 1990s, Michele Ballarin had reinvented herself as a well-connected businesswoman with social cachet.
How Ballarin became “Amira” is, like most origin stories, a bit mysterious. “It was in 2002 that I had a Somali elder come to me, by way of an old Dutch friend,” she said, referring to Karel Eekels (a.k.a. Windmills). The elder, a Sufi sheik, Ballarin recalls, said to her: “We need to find a way for the U.S. to hear us.”
Despite having no experience in foreign policy or prior knowledge of Africa, Ballarin became fascinated by Sufi culture (a moderate and mystical brand of Islam that is the dominant religion of Somalia). She immersed herself in Somali history and its hellacious troubles. Word got out that a rich white woman from Virginia with political and government connections was interested in helping Somalia. Soon, Somalis began showing up at her office doorstep. “Hundreds of them, from every part of the country, from overseas,” Ballarin recalled.
Within a few years, Ballarin says, she began making goodwill trips to Somalia. She exhorted Somalis not to give up hope and paid tribute to their resilience. She promised money for humanitarian aid and reconstruction of their battered country. Over time, she developed a coterie of admirers within Somalia and in the expatriate community spread out in Canada, Europe and the United States. They called her Amira.
To demonstrate her legitimacy, Ballarin pulled out a thick binder of pictures and official-looking documents, and walked me through a photo gallery of her posing with Somali politicians, warlords, clan leaders and Sufis. In almost all the pictures, she is wearing an Armani suit, her hair pulled back in a tight bun.
At the end of my first visit, Ballarin handed me one of the navy blue shirts she ordered made for the “Somali boys.” It was a keepsake for me to illustrate the work she was doing. On the front read: “Somali Marine Security.” On the back: “Amira’s Organic Solution for Somalia.”
In 2007, an earlier iteration of the Organic Solution was birthed by top-shelf counterinsurgency specialists Ballarin brought into the fold at a company of hers named Archangel, then housed in The Plains. It was called the Somali stabilization plan. The idea was to establish a humanitarian presence in Somalia with a small footprint, not the proverbial tip of a spear. “You try to strengthen the social community framework of these people, so that they’re able to resist Islamic fundamentalist extremist penetration,” said J.J. Ebro, the author of the plan, a former Philippine Embassy spokesman who says he has worked on peace-building efforts in volatile regions.
“The idea would be to deliver humanitarian and developmental assistance to these communities, by not bringing in big contractors, but to make Somalis the stakeholders,” Ebro explained.
Ballarin put together “very nice teams, people that were operators,” he said. “Michele was talking about her intelligence ties all the time, and that was validated by all these old hands you see in one room,” Ebro recalled. “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.”
But the Somalia stabilization plan never came to fruition. Ballarin won’t say what went wrong but insists she had a contract with the federal government. “It was cleared by the DoD [Department of Defense] and the Agency [CIA],” she says. “Sometimes the government can’t get things done, and they have come to see us. I can’t say more than that. Some things just shouldn’t be talked about.”
Whatever the circumstances, Ballarin’s operators no longer were receiving their paychecks. “A lot of people gave up lucrative jobs to join up with her,” Ebro recalled. He lasted seven months.
Jim McGee, a retired Marine colonel who in 2007 was Ballarin’s chief operation officer for another company of hers called Select Armor — a body armor business — grew similarly exasperated. McGee said Ballarin had told him at one point that she was a CIA operative and that Archangel was a CIA front. “They were going to use the [Plains] headquarters as some sort of rendition-like location, where foreigners would get interrogated,” he recalled her saying. McGee was dubious. Still, he had lent Ballarin $100,000 to prop up Select Armor (which he says he never recovered and which Ballarin insists was an investment), so he stayed on for most of the year. One day, he said, she told him they needed to speak privately: “She said, ‘The Agency wants me to develop a hit team around the globe.’ That got me out of there.”
Ballarin denies saying this to McGee. But there is evidence that she had such an idea in mind. On Aug. 17, 2007, Ballarin sent the CIA an unsolicited letter, via another company — Gulf Security Group — offering to “track and eliminate Al Qaia’da terrorist networks” in the Horn of Africa. She wrote: “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.”
Two weeks later, the CIA’s office of General Counsel responded with a letter stating that the Agency was “not interested” and “does not authorize you to undertake any activities on its behalf.” The letter closed by telling Ballarin that the actions she proposed “may constitute violations of the Neutrality Act and other criminal laws.”
Undeterred, Ballarin and Davis enticed a Pentagon counterterrorism office to consider their Somali stabilization plan, which (using their new joint company BlackStar) they recast as Operation Viceroy. Its objective was to “assist in the identification and removal of persons and conditions hostile to the security and stability of Somalia and the greater HOA [Horn of Africa] region.” It was pitched as a disguised covert program: “Black- Star’s modus operandi is to conduct operations under the aegis of humanitarian outreach, building upon the organic relationships it has culled over nearly five years from consistent tribal engagement from the semi-autonomous regions to the Republic of Somalia and the greater HOA [Horn of Africa] as a whole.”
Based on e-mails provided to me, it appears that the Pentagon removed the black-ops part of Operation Viceroy and sent Ballarin to Somalia in 2008 to gather intelligence as the humanitarian face of the Organic Solution. She received a classified contract but won’t say how much she was paid. By year’s end, her contract was terminated for “nonperformance.”
Ballarin contends that the Pentagon’s “contracting officer was asking us to undertake things in theater, for things we weren’t contracted for.” She maintains that the various negative allegations are sour grapes by disgruntled former associates and government flunkies jealous of her popularity with Somalis. “High-level military intelligence guys tell me that I’m the most misunderstood asset in Somalia and that I should just keep on doing what I’m doing.”
Perry Davis left the U.S. Special Forces in 2006 after serving for 30 years. He had seen his share of warfare, fighting in counterinsurgency campaigns in the Philippines and Afghanistan. He joined with Ballarin in 2007.
Davis says their aim is to win over the Somali people. He compares Ballarin to Serpico, the famous police-corruption whistleblower played by Al Pacino, and tells me that because their nation-building work threatens those who profit off of Somalia’s instability, “pushback will be astronomical.”
Several years ago, I asked Davis why he retired. “I got tired of hunting man,” he said, meaning other humans. That may be, but he still has a taste for action.
In the summer of 2010 Ballarin told me that Somalis were asking her to do something about Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple snatched off their yacht by pirates in the Seychelles the previous October. It was widely reported that the couple, after a year in the African bush, were in declining health.
So Ballarin and Davis hatched a plan to rescue the Chandlers, who were being held captive in a town in central Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia. In September, Ballarin supposedly negotiated a deal to win the couple’s release in exchange for humanitarian aid. At least that’s what she told William McNulty, one of the filmmakers whose company, TitleTen, was to capture the Chandler rescue on tape. McNulty had read stories about this rich Virginia socialite nicknamed “Amira” who had a plan to tame the pirates and rebuild Somalia. It was a great story, he thought. Also, his filming partner happened to be a reserve in the U.S. military who respected Davis from the time their service overlapped in the Philippines. They all departed for Somali in the first week of October.
In an e-mail to one participant in the operation, Ballarin predicted that her liberation of the Chandlers would be written as “the daring rescue by a white girl and her knuckle dragger associates. … This story will put us, Oasis Airways ... and [Organic Solution] on the map in East Africa.”
The story did not go as scripted. Nearly two weeks after leaving Dulles, the two filmmakers, along with Ballarin and Davis, found themselves holed up in a concrete, gated compound in Hargeisa, the dusty capital of Somaliland, a breakaway republic in the north. The Chandler rescue kept getting pushed back. Ballarin held court with a throng of Sufi sheiks and clan elders who had come to see her. They belonged to Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, a Somali Sufi-led group of fighters who have been battling the al-Shabab.
Ballarin exhorted them to continue taking the fight to al-Shabab, according to McNulty. The filmmakers, who caught it all on tape, were dumbstruck. “She was acting like she was a [CIA] case officer,” says McNulty, who worked in intelligence for the Marine Corps before leaving to become a film producer. Ballarin’s fiery rhetoric, sprinkled with vague operational tactics, fired up her guests. Some of the young fighters started shouting, “Death to the Wahhabis!”
When I recounted for Ballarin this version of events, she responded: “This is what you need to understand. There is the seen and unseen. Not all things are as they seem.”
The next day, word reached the Somaliland government that the foreigners from America were inciting violence. By then, the two filmmakers had lost patience and decided to make their way back to the United States.
By the afternoon, armed soldiers slinging AK-47s had surrounded the compound. McNulty and his partner, who had left for the airport in Berbera, were intercepted by Somali soldiers on the tarmac and forced to return to the compound in Hargeisa. They were put under house arrest with Ballarin and Davis. Ballarin suggested they contact anyone they knew in the State Department. “There’s nothing I can do for you,” McNulty remembers her saying.
Within days, they were all released and put on a plane out of Somalia. Several weeks later the Chandlers were set free after 388 days. Their captors secured a $500,000 ransom collected by friends and family of the Chandlers.
When I met Ballarin in a Georgetown restaurant shortly after all this, she said the ruckus her presence caused resulted from a power struggle between the good guys and bad guys. She also whispered that she was the one who had negotiated the release of the Chandlers “behind the scenes.”
The last time I met with Ballarin and Davis was in August at a VIP event at the Warrenton estate. The sky was hazy and threatened rain. On the front lawn sat a replica of the L-shaped, adobe-colored housing unit that would be reproduced in Somalia for returning refugees. It was fully furnished, with two small bedrooms, a complete kitchen and two tiny bathrooms. The construction firm Berenyi had built it. “We have a teaming agreement with Amira,” said company president Tony Berenyi. “This is all pro bono, to help get the first phase of the project off the ground.” He pointed to a bunch of individuals milling outside the structure; they were sub-contractors who helped with aspects of construction. “All those vendors have done it pro bono, too,” he said.
More than a dozen people were on hand for the unveiling of the demo house, including a Navy admiral from the Pentagon, who was praising Ballarin’s Organic Solution (“I’m here in a private capacity,” he stressed) and a “frontier markets” investor from New York, who whispered to me: “She reminds me of a more exotic version of the ‘M’ character from James Bond.” Except for Davis and Ostman, who came to bless the structure, virtually all the new associates in attendance had joined Ballarin in the last month.
The resettlement initiative with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was moving forward; in fact, several days later, Ballarin and Davis were flying out of Dulles to join him on a fundraising trip in Africa. They would travel to Kenya and Sudan to meet donors for their Oasis Foundation for Hope.
“Sheikh Sharif has already identified $300 million in funding,” Ballarin said.
I thought back to the Memorial Day meeting with Ahmed in Warrenton, when Ballarin mentioned that this was the culmination of all her work in Somalia. This was after Ahmed had saluted her dedication, which he said had earned her the love and admiration of the Somali people. She beamed at the plaudits. “I am honored that my Somali brothers and sisters are as loyally dedicated to me as I am to them,” she said. “I am truly moved by these people and deeply connected to them. It’s been one of the richest experiences of my life.”
Keith Kloor is a writer living in New York. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.