Jan. 17, 2013 -- Four years and over $1 billion in U.S. support later, the Obama administration today claimed a victory in its war on terror in Africa by officially recognizing the government of Somalia, once a country overrun by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
At a press conference at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood shoulder to shoulder with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the first democratically elected President of Somalia since 1991, and told reporters that working to stabilize Somalia had been "a personal priority" of hers.
"So I'm very pleased that in my last weeks here, Mr. President, we are taking this historic step of recognizing the government," Clinton told reporters.
Earlier today Clinton said the Somali president also met with President Obama, as a sign of how committed the U.S. is to new democracy.
When Clinton came into office in early 2009, the al Qaeda-allied terrorist organization al-Shabaab controlled all of southern and most of central Somalia and all but 10 blocks of the capital city of Mogadishu. The country had not a functioning government in nearly two decades. The United States had engaged with Somalia during that time, including the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident in 1993, and had provided support for the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia in 2006, which lasted for three years and is widely considered to have been a failure.
Over the last four years, the U.S. has poured more than $1 billion into the country, with at least $650 million dollars used to support and train African Union troops fighting the terrorists, $200 million in humanitarian aid and more than $130 million to fund programs to help the country rebuild its security structures. The U.S. also helped beat back the terrorists with drone strikes and intelligence support for the AU force.
By officially recognizing Somalia's new government, the U.S. has now opened the door for formal diplomatic ties, including USAID programs. Somalia is now also eligible to apply for assistance from the World Bank and the IMF. Clinton spoke about how in the last year two different senior State Department officials visited Mogadishu, a city state department officials working on Somalia were forbidden to visit just two years ago. Clinton said that while security is still tenuous, the ultimate goal is to have a permanent U.S. presence in the country.
"Our diplomats, our development experts are traveling more frequently there, and I do look forward to the day when we can re- establish a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Mogadishu," said Clinton.
But she also acknowledged that security remains an issue and that the new government and democracy remain fragile.
Just this week the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab publicly boasted that they had executed a French intelligence agent codenamed Dennis Allex, who al-Shabaab had held in captivity since 2009. An al-Shabaab spokesperson issued a statement saying the execution was retaliation for Western incursions into Mali, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. Days before, France launched a coordinated military operation to pummel extremists in Mali, a West African nation more than 3,000 miles from Somalia.
In her address today, Clinton acknowledged that the "threat of terrorism and violent extremism... is not just a problem in Somalia. It is a problem across the region."
"The terrorists, as we have learned once again in the last days, are not resting, and neither will we," she said. "We will be very clear-eyed and realistic about the threat they continue to pose."
Clinton said that Somalia serves as an example of how terrorists groups in Africa can be defeated. She stressed the Obama administration's policy of supporting African-led solutions, like the African Union Mission in Somalia. She said the administration is taking the same approach fighting Al Qaeda groups in Mali.
"This is difficult but essential work. These are some of the most remote places on the planet, very hard to get to, difficult to have much intelligence from, so there's going to be a lot of work that has to go into our efforts. But I want to assure the American people that we are committed to this work just as we were committed to Somalia," said Clinton."There were so many times…over the last four years, when some people were ready to throw up their hands and say, you know, al-Shabaab made an advance here, and this terrible attack in Mogadishu, and we kept persisting, because we believed that with the kind of approach we had taken, we would be standing here today with a democratically-elected president of Somalia."
Somali President Sheikh Mohamud was emotional as he personally thanked Secretary Clinton and America for its support of Somalia.
"I wish madam Secretary all of the best for her future, and we all miss her greatly. And I will welcome the new Secretary of State and the new administration that will take over," said the President. "Somalia will remain grateful to the unwavering support from the United States government in the last 22 years that Somalia was in a difficult era. We remain, and we will remain, grateful to that. And I -- and I say in front of you today, thank you, America."
Currently there are nearly 1.4 million displaced people within Somalia, and another 1.4 million refugees in neighboring countries, according to the United Nation's refugee agency. ABC News reported on the horrors of the refugee crisis from Somalia's famine less than two years ago when tens of thousands of Somalis fled al-Shabaab controlled areas just to be able to find food.
ABC News' David Muir witnessed a gun battle between African Union troops and extremists battling for control of Mogadishu. At that time, basic security, not elections, was the priority.