A diplomat responsible for U.S. relations with Somalia arrived in the Twin Cities this week to meet with leaders of Minnesota's Somali community.
Michael Rannenberger serves as the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, a position which includes overseeing relations with war torn Somalia. He discussed his efforts Tuesday with MPR's Tom Crann.
Tom Crann: Can you briefly explain for those who don't know, how this works diplomatically, why the U.S. communicates through the ambassador and embassy in Kenya to Somalia?
Michael Rannenberger: We have not had an embassy in Somalia since 1994 when chaos essentially forced us to leave Mogadishu and the offices were relocated to Kenya and we sort of oversee Somalia ... from Kenya now.
Crann: You've undoubtedly been briefed as to what to expect from Minnesota's Somali community. What is on the top of your agenda when it comes to their desire for the U.S. and relations with Somalia?
Rannenberger: The Somali community is one of the most attached to their home country. I mean you find diasporas, Africans and Latin Americans and others around the world of course, and around the U.S., but the Somalis are known for that. They're committed to their country. They want to help the country. So what I'm hoping to do today is to have a dialogue with them.
Crann: What is your message about how Somali Americans and Somalis who live here in Minnesota can help bring stability to their homeland?
Rannenberger: Well, one thing of course, Somalis send money back, obviously, remittances to help their families, and that's all good and certainly positive, but there are other things. Somalia needs expertise. The transitional federal government ... has opened up possibility for a bit of collaboration and so there's a need for expertise, for example.
Right now there's a contract that has been given to support the transitional federal government where Somalis from the diaspora can go back and actually serve in advisory positions on everything from health care to education to governance. There are things for example that can be done through digital video teleconferences. A community here talking to the Somali community there [can] talk about the U.S. experience, talk about how they can perhaps help. When Somalis visit Kenya, they can be brought together with the Somali community in Kenya. There's a large Somali community in Kenya, business people, politicians, others. So there's just a myriad number of ways in which the Somali diaspora here and throughout the U.S. can become involved in a very positive way with Somalia.
Crann: From all accounts we get here in Minnesota, the U.S. backed the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006, and some have made a link between that move and the radicalization of some young Minnesota men who have gone back to fight with al-Shabab. So in hindsight, was that a prudent move for the U.S.?
Rannenberger: I do want to set the record straight here. I understand that's a very widespread perception.
Crann: Is it accurate?
Rannenberger: But in fact, it's not. I was there. I arrived in Kenya in August of 2006, so I was there when this all happened ... And I will tell you that this was not something that we organized. Ethiopians made a strategic decision based on their own self-interest to go into Somalia, and in fact did not even give us much notice that they were going to do that. The U.S. did not support it. We didn't provide military equipment. We didn't provide advisors. I mean this was something that they undertook.
Now there is a widespread perception though--you're absolutely right--that somehow the U.S. was behind this. And I keep trying to explain the facts, but you know it's hard to overcome such a prevailing misperception.
Crann: I want to ask about al-Shabab. As far as the U.S is concerned, officially is al-Shabab linked to al-Qaida?
Rannenberger: The way I would put it is there's been a growing relationship. Al-Shabab ... was an offshoot from the Islamic courts. And they were the most radical wing of the Islamic courts, which were thrown out by the Ethiopians in 2006 and 2007. Since then they have moved in an increasingly radical direction, and there's no question that during that period of time, contacts between al-Qaida and the al-Shabab have increased. It's not totally clear what the formal linkages are and this sort of thing, but it's obviously something that is worrisome.
But the al-Shabab itself, apart from whatever the nature of contacts with al-Qaida are, the al-Shabab itself has made clear that it is a very radically oriented extremist organization and bent on ... taking action outside of Somalia as well as within the country. So it poses a very significant danger to the countries of the region, but the ultimate solution, and I would say it's the ultimate solution to the Shabab issue ... or the extremist threat, is creating stability in Somalia.
And when you look at this, I think it's tempting to look at Somalia in a one-dimensional way. You say, 'Well, this has been a failed state, and there's a terrorist threat. Therefore, there's a one-dimensional U.S. policy.' Wrong. There are any number of security threats posed by the Somalia crisis. You have a massive humanitarian crisis, which forces people over the border. That's disruptive. We don't want to see people die. You've got the piracy problem. You've got the Shabab problem. So you've got, on a number of fronts, things that are destabilizing to the region that concern us, and the overarching answer to all of that is try to build stability in Somalia.
Crann: You say that the U.S. was not involved or did not back Ethiopia in late 2006 and 2007. Some, though, are pointing to that and saying, 'Well, that has caused this radicalization of some young men with a nationalist and also perhaps religious fervor who would go back and do that.' So how do you combat that?
Rannenberger: I think what you do is clearly you try to educate. You try to disseminate information. You try to explain the realities. A lot of times, people are simply misguided based quite often on misinformation, sometimes based on the realities. So it requires, I think, a lot of outreach and a lot of engagement. And may I say, not even primarily by the U.S. government or the State Department, but by community leaders as well. And I'm sure that there's a lot of dialogue going on within this community.
(Interview transcribed by MPR's Madeleine Baran.)