Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Somalia

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Nairobi, Kenya
May 4, 2015

MODERATOR: So after we’re done – well, you all know [senior State Department official], I’m sure.


MODERATOR: After we’re done, we’re going to go over all --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Nicole, can you listen, sorry? So we’re on the same page.

QUESTION: I’m so sorry.

MODERATOR: It’s okay. After we’re done, we’re going to go over all the ground rules and everything how tomorrow’s going to work, okay? So we don’t need to do any logistics with [senior State Department official]. But just one for this, is this will be embargoed until we’re wheels-down, which is when everything will be embargoed, which we’ll go over at the end, but just so you know, this is all embargoed.

It’s all on background as a senior State Department official, per normal. I think you’re going to make some opening comments and then we’ll do questions.


MODERATOR: And you’ll have the transcript tonight too, I think, right? Okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, let me say, first of all, this is exciting for me as [senior State Department official], because Secretary Kerry is the first – and I had to check this over and over again – the first Secretary of State ever to visit Somalia.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And this visit, we believe, will underscore the deepening of our relationship and our long-term commitment to Somali – to the Somali people and to their future. As a sign of our commitment, we will – we’re making plans to make our presence more enduring in Somalia. As you know, we announced a new Foreign Service career ambassador for Somalia, and once that ambassador is on the ground, our office will continue to be here in Kenya. But once the ambassador is on the ground, we’re going to have a much more enduring TDY footing in Somalia. We’re going to be there much more regularly with a bit of a – a bit more larger footprint. We’re very upbeat about Somalia. We still see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel – and notice I said “a bit.” We continue to support the federal government and its vision 2016 agenda, including hoping and working with the government so they hold national elections next year.

We’ve seen significant progress on state formation with the creation of the interim administration for Jubaland and the southwest region. The federal government and local actors are now hard at work on an agreement for a central regions administration. The new Somali Leadership Forum formed by the presidents of the regional administrations Puntland and the federal government will be an important venue for further defining the federal state relationship and the delineation of authority among the government.

Of course, there have been a lot of delays in Somalia. Part of that has been the infighting that took place over the past two years with the government. There were three prime ministers in the three years that the government has existed. We have delivered tough messages to them that they have to get their own political house in order if they want to see Somalia continue to develop and to continue to grow. We have a commitment from the president and from the new prime minister that this is it, they’re going to find a way to continue to work – to work together. The president and the new prime minister and the new cabinet appear, as far as we can see now, to be working well together. They’ve refocused on a substantive agenda. And we’re urging them to accelerate the pace of reform and put into place the institutions and the laws and the processes necessary to achieve their reform goals.

The Secretary will also be thanking the five AMISOM troop-contributing countries – Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. They, as you know, have suffered the loss of lives in assisting the Somali people. He will be thanking them and commending them for their efforts. He will also be meeting with a small civil society group to talk about the challenges that they face, trying to help the Somali Government and help the Somali people. He will meet with the three regional presidents and he will have a meeting with President Hassan Sheikh and the prime minister.

So it’ll be a short visit. I think we’ll be on the ground about 3.5 hours. But it’s historic and I think it will send a strong signal to the Somali people of our commitment. I think it will send a strong signal to al-Shabaab that we are not turning our backs on the Somali people and that we will continue to engage with Somalia until we bring al-Shabaab’s terror to an end.

MODERATOR: Great. So who wants to get us started with questions?


QUESTION: Will there be any talks tomorrow on dealing with the asymmetrical attacks that al-Shabaab has carried out, such as last month’s attack in Garissa? And then secondly, will the U.S. be offering anything in the way of new assistance, additional assistance to Somalia during the visit tomorrow?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, we have a robust assistance program already in Somalia. We have huge humanitarian programs. We are already providing assistance to the Somali National Army, helping them and assisting them with training. And we have robust assistance to AMISOM and to the troop-contributing countries. So we will continue to look for ways to increase our support to the government. There are no plans to make any major announcements tomorrow. I think the big deal here is the fact that the Secretary will be going.

In terms of discussing al-Shabaab, that has been on the Secretary’s agenda – we talked to the Kenyans about it – and how we better support their efforts to deal with al-Shabaab. The fact that al-Shabaab is carrying out the asymmetrical attacks that they are doing is a sign that they are being pushed out of areas where they’ve been holding territory. We see it as showing that they are being pushed up against the wall, and we’ll keep pushing them up against the wall until they are brought under control.

QUESTION: You spoke about elections earlier, national elections. But do you really think that under the current circumstances, that the country would be ready for elections within the next 18 months?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Not elections as we know them. I think what we’re pushing the government to do is organize themselves in such a way that they choose a representative government through some form of election or selection that is different from what they’ve done before – what they have now, where they have handpicked. So local communities need to have a say, whether it’s bringing the local plans together to select their representatives – it has to be something that shows that they are moving forward in terms of a representative government.

I think it’s going to be hard by 2016. I think the hope was that they would have elections by 2016, but I think we have to be realistic. This is not going to be a one man, one vote election as we would have hoped it to be.

QUESTION: What percentage of the country do you believe al-Shabaab still holds?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure they hold any territory. They’re in some small pockets, and the AMISOM troops have been very effective in pushing them out of these pockets. Where we have a problem is that as soon as AMISOM pushes them out, people are content to have them gone, the Somali army is not – or the government is not capacitated to move in to start providing services, and al-Shabaab in some cases have gone back into territory where they’ve been kicked out. So that’s a huge challenge for us, but they’re not holding territory in the same way that they were doing two years ago.

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of core fighter numbers remaining for them? I realize --


QUESTION: -- some come and go, and when they’re on the upswing they get bandwagoners.


QUESTION: But do you have a sense of the core number?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t. We may be able to get that for you.

MODERATOR: Yeah, we can check with some CT folks.


QUESTION: Okay, and then I have just one more, and it’s the logistics. Does the Somali Government know that the Secretary is coming, or is it --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think they know now. They were expecting me and they were happy to have me. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Obviously, of course.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the planning has been all around my coming, but I saw some tweets coming out of Somalia today and they’ve been, I think, informed now that he’s --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) sure.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Sometime today they started. I think they know. But I got an email two nights ago from one of the president’s chief advisors saying, “Please, please, please, [senior State Department official], is there any way you can bring the Secretary?” So I was – I was very happy to see that because it meant they didn’t know.

QUESTION: When you were doing that, was it sort of like meant as a subterfuge, or did you really think you would go and change your mind at the last minute?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no, no, the – no, the plan has been for the Secretary to go.

QUESTION: Yeah. And you just for security reasons --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But for security reasons we didn’t want to announce in advance that the Secretary was going.

QUESTION: Why not have him go into town? Why not have him leave the airport?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That is – I mean, that’s a huge, huge logistical and security challenge for us. The last thing we need is something to happen when the Secretary is on the ground. And I don’t think we have the confidence of taking him out of – off the grounds of the airport.

QUESTION: What was the Secretary’s reaction when you first proposed this trip?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Really just excited. Very excited about going. And then when he learned he was the first. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: So today in the conversations with Kenyatta and the others when issues like Dadaab and the refugee crisis came up, he mentioned that he had – he appreciates the burden and the idea is to come up with a holistic strategy that makes Somalia safe enough to facilitate returns. How realistic is that in the next years, I mean, given that – where the security situation is?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’re seeing some improvements in Somalia where people can start thinking about going home. There was already between UNHCR, Kenya, and Somalia a tripartite agreement on looking at what was needed to facilitate refugees going home. And so that agreement is in place. What that means is that they will start doing some of the work to look at areas where refugees might go. And it has to be voluntary. They’re not going to be forced out, and the Kenyans know they can’t force them out. They know that this is something that’s going to take time. But it’s been done before. We moved refugees from Guinea. There were 20, 30, 40, 50,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea, and they eventually went back home.

QUESTION: Yeah, but this conflict is 27 years strong.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Liberia’s was 20. It really was. Fourteen years of civil war but six years of conflict leading up to that.

QUESTION: Was there anything in the discussion today with the president about – or did the president maybe talk to you about the way that al-Shabaab has shifted its tactics?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the Kenyans are very worried about the shift and the threat that al-Shabaab has carried out in Kenya. I mean, they’ve suffered a number of attacks. It’s not just Westgate and Garissa and Mandera and Wajir and several attacks in Mombasa. So they are very, very concerned and they are under a lot of political pressure from their own population to do something about the insecurity in this country.

QUESTION: But is the U.S. willing to look at other ways to try to – I mean, is there a need to look at other ways to try to tackle them other than dealing with them as a military force? I mean, they are – they can now attack with few people, hand grenades, AK-47s, and make a huge dent.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I don’t know that we’re in a place where we want to – I don’t know if you’re implying negotiate with al-Shabaab.

QUESTION: No, no, no.


QUESTION: I’m asking whether the U.S. would think about --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We – I mean, our approach to the Kenyans and anywhere in the world where countries are dealing with terrorism is that they need to have a multifaceted approach that looks at the impact of their social-economic conditions in their countries; what is it that is attracting young people to respond to al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, or al-Qaida messaging; and how we can counter those messages in communities. We’ve encouraged the Kenyan Government to do a better job of reaching out to its own Somali communities to talk to those communities, to bring those communities into the process of trying to help them deal with the al-Shabaab threat. They will be hosting a – and they have not announced this yet, but --

MODERATOR: The Secretary did in his press conference.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He did? Okay, so I can do it. They will be --

MODERATOR: CVE summit, yeah. Secretary --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They will be hosting a CVE summit in early June in which they will – that’s one of the areas they will be looking at, how to better engage communities, how to better – what kind of communication strategy do you need to ensure that the communities understand what the government is doing, and how do you deal with human rights. You have to – you can’t also victimize communities. You have to engage with those communities and bring them on your side.

So we’ve had those discussions with the Kenyans. We’re also working with them in terms of training their communities to better recognize when they have a problem and to also share their concerns with their government, because there’s not a kind of two-way communications going on between local communities and the government.

QUESTION: Can I come back to the question of the military aspect since that is still the predominant tack right now, especially in Somalia? One, does the U.S. believe that the Kenyan military is actually capable of carrying out a robust counterterrorism strategy? And if not, why not? And for the Somali military, what’s the problem – not enough troops, not enough training, people who just aren’t getting it and need to be rousted out of the ranks? What’s the problem there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First on the Kenyans, it’s the Kenyans, it’s the Ethiopians, it’s the Ugandans, it’s the Burundians, and it’s the Djiboutians. And they are capable. They have had tremendous training. They have some capacity issues related to equipment and being able to get to locations, but they are absolutely committed and they’re capable, and they have been extraordinarily successful in pushing al-Shabaab back.

Somali National Army – the “national” is missing. So trying to bring the Somali National Army together, the various clans and sub-clans together under the umbrella of a national army still is a work in progress and is something that many countries are working with them on, including us.

QUESTION: How long do you think it might take to get people to feel or to believe that they should be fighting under one flag as opposed to many? Or is this something that is almost intractable? I’m thinking of the outcome of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don’t think it’s intractable. I don’t know that I can put a timeframe on it. I think we all think it’s possible. I think the government thinks it’s possible, and we have some examples where we’ve had troops work together when there was an attack on the villa last year, the National Army and the police actually responded effectively to that attack. So they do have capacity problems. A focused effort to continue to train them, to equip them, to really build the commitment – I think it’s possible. Will it happen in a year? Probably not. It’ll take more time than that. But I think it’s – we’re seeing some evidence that it’s working, and it will continue to work if we continue to put our efforts behind them.

QUESTION: You said that there wasn’t going to be any new announcements made while you’re on the ground tomorrow, but in the meetings with President Kenyatta today and with the defense minister, were there any requests for additional military funding from the U.S.?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They didn’t request military funding. They did request equipment. They noted the importance of our sharing information with them, and we will continue to do that. And we’ll continue to work with them to build capacity. They need enabling support, so for example, when the Ugandans go out to some areas, they don’t have the helicopters to get them into the areas they need to go into and to get them back. So they need enablers that we are working – and that’s part of our funding in the coming year to support them.

QUESTION: And in terms of --

MODERATOR: Let’s just do a couple more, guys.

QUESTION: Sure. Just one more follow-up. In terms of equipment, info-sharing, is any of that subject to regulations based on the government’s performance overall? Are there any restrictions (inaudible)?


MODERATOR: Like Leahy vetting.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Leahy vetting applies – I mean not – Leahy vetting has not been an issue for us in supporting the Kenyan army working in Somalia. The Kenyan army – that has been fine. Leahy vetting has been an issue that has been a problem dealing with the security services here in Kenya. But we vet – we do vet every single military person going into any UN operation, so they’ve all been vetted.



QUESTION: Yeah, a quick question on the – on human rights in Somalia. Will the Secretary raise the issues of human rights tomorrow, especially the Commission of Women, in the light of the case you raised yourself 18 months ago – this poor woman who had been raped and arrested along with two journalists? Do you see --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, that is always on our agenda wherever we are, and it will be on our agenda tomorrow. As I mentioned, we’ll be meeting with the government, but we’ll be meeting with civil society to get what I hope is a real truth check from them on how they see conditions in the country, and it is something that we will certainly discuss with the government.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up to Ros’s question. When you mentioned that in today’s meeting there were requests for equipment, was – were those requests for Kenya or was Kenya – or were the Kenyan officials asking on behalf of AMISOM? And then also, are there any indications that the U.S. is going to consider or perhaps is in the process of providing additional equipment such as the helicopters that you mentioned?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re looking at all of the equipment requests for AMISOM. This has to go through the UN because they’re part of the – it’s a little bit of a hybrid, but we have to go through the UN and the AU process to provide equipment to them, but we’re looking at all of the request.

QUESTION: Can I ask a domestic one? Have you reached out to Somali-American leaders in Minnesota or elsewhere and told them about your plans to visit?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: She’s laughing because I was supposed to – actually before this trip happened, I was supposed to be in Minnesota on May 1st, so Don Teitelbaum [identifying information withheld] went to Minnesota. Is he still there?

MODERATOR: Where he is now.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He’s there now to reach out to the Somali community. And I personally think it’s really important to engage with the diaspora community. So wherever I travel, if there’s a large diaspora community, when I get back I always reach out to them. So I reached out to the Nigerians after the election. I reached out the Ethiopians recently. And Don is dealing with the Somalis in Minnesota, and I’d like to at some point go there as well. But we did not pre-brief them that the Secretary was going.

QUESTION: What do you think the effect of the Secretary’s trip will have for them, given their origins and what’s been a long-stigmatized country? This would kind of be a normalizing moment.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it will be very positive. I think they will see it in a positive light. I think it will buoy them and give them some encouragement that things are improving in the country.

QUESTION: Can I ask about the Secretary’s conversation today with the president about democracy and human rights? He said he was pleased that the president – I can’t remember the verb he used, but it was like reaffirmed.

QUESTION: Reaffirmed.

QUESTION: Yeah. His commitment to human rights and the rule of law drew kind of scoffing laughter from pockets of the civil rights community and human rights community. What was that conversation like behind --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t know that I – I don’t want to repeat after the Secretary. They had a long meeting with a group of us, and then they also had a long meeting in private. But in the open meeting, the issue of human rights, the importance of civil society and respect for civil society was discussed openly. And Kenyatta said all the right things.

QUESTION: But has he done any of the right things though?


QUESTION: I mean, do you take him at his word?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You have – we have to take him at his word and we have to use his words to push the agenda forward. And I think that we have pushed back hard. There was civil society legislation under consideration and it still could come up again, but we were able to push them back on that. We certainly were able to push them back on the issue of announcing that they’re going to send all Somali refugees home.

QUESTION: And did you raise the two Muslim civil rights organizations that they have put on the terrorist list, Haki and --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But they’ve put – we raise the issue of all of the NGOs. It’s not just two. I think there were about 80 that they have put on the list, and we raised it in the context that these NGOs play an important role. And they question – they had issues related to transparency and how these NGOs work in their country. And we said that this was an issue – NGOs are not the government; they’re separate from the government.

QUESTION: What do you think the reaction’s going to be --

MODERATOR: Great. Okay, let’s do the last one. Yeah.

QUESTION: Just what’s the reaction going to be in Congress and the Foreign Relations Committee?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On Somalia? I think it’ll be very positive.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, I got a lot – when I started in the bureau a year and a half ago, Senator Coons’s first demand was a Somalia strategy. I mean, and he really pushed hard for it. We had a classified one, and then we redid it and made it so that we could share it within --

QUESTION: Do they know he’s going then?


MODERATOR: I don’t think so. I’m not sure.


QUESTION: You didn’t trust Senator Inhofe to keep a secret? (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Usually what I do when I go back is I reach out to members who are interested in Africa and I’ll do a series of phone calls with them to let them know. So I’ll call Coons, I’ll call Flake, I’ll call Karen Bass.

QUESTION: Barbara Lee.


QUESTION: Barbara Lee?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I – in fact, I spoke to her. I didn’t tell her I was coming to Somalia. I spoke to her just last weekend, but she would be on the list as well.



QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.