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Unannounced And Unprecedented: Kerry Makes A Stop In Somalia


Secretary of State John Kerry has performed a secretarial first - the first secretary of state to set foot in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Kerry's visit comes at a challenging time for that country, as most times seem to be. U.S.-backed African troops have taken back most of the major cities. But the Islamist militant group al-Shabab remains deadly. NPR's Gregory Warner is in Nairobi. He was with Secretary Kerry yesterday and joins us live on the line. And, Gregory, what was that visit like?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, you know, Kerry came to Nairobi with two missions in mind. One is he wanted to address the problem of Somali refugees, which Kenyans have been trying to push out. Kenyan politicians have been talking about Somali refugees being a burden on the country. And he wanted to thank Kenya for its role particularly in fighting the war in Somalia, so he did both of those things.

INSKEEP: OK, so that's what he was doing in - so that's what he was doing in Nairobi. He did not also go to Mogadishu?

WARNER: No, and then today he went to Mogadishu. He - there were a number of security precautions. He only gave his host, the Somali president, a one-day's notice. The whole trip was less than four hours. And he spent the whole time in the fortified airport, which is really like a bunker. And it was - it was in these seven-foot sandbagged walls that he met with the Somali president and Somali civic leaders.

INSKEEP: Ok, so he wasn't exactly going shopping on the streets of Mogadishu. But he was going there, which sends a signal. And I guess the security also sends a signal about the precariousness of the situation. You have, of course, followed the situation there for quite some time. What direction are things heading in?

WARNER: Well, look, I mean, really Kerry was sending a particular message right now, which is very important I think for Somalis to hear, which is that the U.S. stands with the embattled Somali government. I mean, let's remember that the war in Somalia is being fought in a very different way than, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. There are no U.S. troops...


WARNER: ...Doing the fighting. And instead, it's African troops from neighboring African countries doing the fighting, along with Somali soldiers. So that means that there cannot be another "Black Hawk Down" situation, where U.S. soldiers are killed in Somalia. But this proxy-style war means that it's easy for Americans to forget that this war exists. So Kerry was sending a message thanking troops for their sacrifice because the death toll has been quite high, supporting - and supporting the government.

INSKEEP: Gregory, we mentioned that the U.S.-backed forces control most of the major cities. What about the countryside?

WARNER: Well, the countryside is largely controlled by al- Shabab. And even the cities are quite difficult. I mean, we can say that the AMISOM troops, the peacekeeping troops control the cities, but the Islamist militant group al-Shabab has really perfected a very low - low-tech form of attack that's always the same and it's very portable, where they send in some guys with explosive vests, followed by other guys with AK-47s. They do this right downtown in Mogadishu, which is under supposedly the control of the government. And this is despite the fact that they've been pushed out of the cities, despite the fact that their senior commanders have been taken out with U.S. airstrikes. And they're recruiting not only from Somalia, but also from Western countries. There's a bit of a recruitment war right now between al-Shabab and ISIS in Syria, competition for foreign jihadists. Kerry in his visit mentioned the problem of recruitment. So all these are serious challenges that Kerry's visit will at least - at least try to highlight.

INSKEEP: A dramatic glimpse of an ongoing war. NPR's Gregory Warner, thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks a lot, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.