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US Orders Staffers to Leave Somalia Over 'Specific Threat'

FILE - U.S. Marines raise the American flag over the reclaimed U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu.

The United States has ordered all non-essential employees of its mission to Somalia to leave the capital, Mogadishu, citing “specific threat information” against them.

The statement issued Saturday by the U.S. State Department relates the threat information to Mogadishu International Airport, protected by African Union Troops and run by a Turkish firm.

“Due to specific threat information against U.S. personnel on the Mogadishu International Airport, the U.S. Mission to Somalia has directed its non-essential U.S. citizen employees to depart Mogadishu until further notice,” said the statement.

It also urged U.S. citizens who decide to remain in Somalia to be vigilant.

“The Department of State urges all U.S. citizens who decide to remain in Somalia to review your personal security plans, take appropriate steps to enhance your personal safety, remain aware of your surroundings, monitor local media for updates, and maintain a high level of vigilance,” the statement reads.

Speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity, authorities at the airport said the threat information has been submitted to airport security and they do not know the specific threat.

Brigadier General Abdi Ashkir Jama, the general manager of Mogadishu's Aden Adde International Airport — named after Aden Abdullah Osman, the first president of Somalia — was contacted by VOA, but he has declined to speak about it, referring the case to the Somalia’s security ministry.

Airport security

Aden Adde International Airport, formerly and still commonly known as Mogadishu International Airport, is Somalia’s largest airport.

Peace Hotel, across from the main gate of Aden Adde International airport, Mogadishu, Somalia
Peace Hotel, across from the main gate of Aden Adde International airport, Mogadishu, Somalia

Car bombs and deadly suicide attacks, later claimed by militants, have struck more than 10 times near the airport since the deployment of African Union troops to Somalia on March 6, 2007. In 2016, a major security incident inside occurred when a terrorist suicide bomber managed to smuggle an explosive device in his laptop, boarded a passenger plane and detonated it.

The mid-air blast blew a hole in the aircraft and forced the pilot of Flight 159, bound for Djibouti with 74 passengers on board, to make an emergency landing about 15 minutes after take off from Mogadishu.

Officials later announced that a man who was ejected from the plane, Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh, was carrying the laptop that contained the bomb.

The incident briefly disrupted airport operations and those of Turkish Airlines — the only international carrier flying into Somalia — and forced airport administrators to implement stringent measures to improve safety and security.

According to authorities, the measures include a 24-hour security surveillance system, electronic detection systems, physical checkpoints, and tough passenger luggage and cargo screening. Sniffer dogs are used when necessary, and firearms have been banned from the airport.

To step up standards, the airport has been reconstructed and renovated. It has a new terminal run by Favori LLC, a Turkish company. Its roads are freshly paved by TIKA, Turkey's development agency, and it has solar-powered street lights. The Turkish Red Crescent provides services, including trash collection, road construction, and waste water treatment to debris removal.

In September of this year, the airport made history after a cargo plane carrying 200 pilgrims from Saudi Arabia landed at night, marking the first flight in 27 years since the collapse of the former military regime in 1991.

Despite slow recovery and remarkable diaspora investment, Somalia remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries. The U.S. hasn’t had an embassy there since 1991 and calls security “extremely unstable.”

Last month, the capital city was rocked by the country’s worst attack, which killed more than 350 people, including Somali-Americans.

On Friday, the U.S. carried out its first airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Somalia.

In Mogadishu, Somali leaders and the governors of Somali states met for a fourth consecutive day in an effort to agree on implementation of a joint security plan. The government is said to be preparing for a major offensive against al-Shabab.