By David McKenzie
For the first time in nearly 20 years, a senior U.S. official visited the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Sunday, a sign of improving security in a country long considered a failed state.
Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for African affairs, met with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, president of Somalia's transitional government, along with several high-ranking government and diplomatic officials.
"I think that we probably are in the best position that we have been in more than two decades, and my very presence in Mogadishu was an acknowledgment of the progress made," Carson told CNN Sunday in an interview in Nairobi after leaving Somalia.
A year ago, the visit would have been unthinkable. But in August, African Union troops pushed Al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group affiliated with al Qaeda, out of central Mogadishu after years of bitter urban fighting.
The last senior U.S. official visited Mogadishu 19 years ago, officials said.
In recent weeks, Al-Shabaab has suffered more setbacks, with Ugandan troops occupying the Afgoye corridor near Mogadishu and Kenyan troops taking the key town of Afmadow in southern Somalia.
However, Carson said Al-Shabaab still represents a significant terror threat, both internally and internationally.
"Over the last year, Al-Shabaab has become formally affiliated with al Qaeda, and senior leaders of Al-Shabaab have befriended individuals who are linked with al Qaeda," he said.
"They have befriended foreign fighters who have come in from the Middle East and South Asia. And their presence is a source of concern in Somalia as well as in the region and also for the global community."
Security analysts worry Al-Shabaab leaders could slip into Yemen and link up with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of al Qaeda's most active affiliates.
"Let me just say that the Red Sea is very narrow between Somalia and Yemen. And we know that there have been movements of individuals associated with extremist movements back and forth between those two countries," he said.
The U.S. government recently offered millions of dollars for information on seven key members of Al-Shabaab through its Rewards for Justice program.
In response, an Al-Shabaab official has reportedly offered 10 camels for information on President Barack Obama and two camels for information on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In response to a question about Al-Shabaab's reported response, Carson called it "so absurd that it doesn't deserve a response."
While the security situation has improved dramatically in Mogadishu, Carson said that political reforms must now catch up with the security gains.
On August 20, the mandate for Somalia's transitional federal government will run out. Somali elders need to pass a new constitution and elect new leadership before then.
But while several stumbling blocks could lie ahead, Carson said he was confident that the road map will be completed in time and threatened sanctions against anyone who acted as a spoiler - including senior government officials.
"Things are moving in a very positive direction," he said.