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After decades as 'world's most dangerous' place, has Somalia turned the corner?

Tobin Jones / AMISOM via AFP - Getty Images

A Somali dock worker carries cement unloaded from a ship to a waiting truck at Mogadishu's main port. The aid effort in the war-torn country is shifting toward boosting the economy amid claims it now has a "bright future."

Somalia has long been defined by terrorism, famine, and piracy.

But as the United States this week pledged another $40 million towards its recovery, Somalia's leaders said the country had finally turned a corner in the fight against the al Qaeda-linked militant group, al-Shabab.

“A bright future for Somalia is within touching distance,” Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon proclaimed on Twitter as the U.S. attended a global summit in London to discuss the country’s future.  

Organizers of the conference sought to build upon the new normality creeping into the nation’s capital, Mogadishu. The country that is often referred to as "the world's most dangerous" is not as dangerous as it once was.

Pirates have not successfully hijacked any ships off Somalia's coast in almost a year and a growing sense of security and confidence has been fueled by the relative retreat of al-Shabab, which controlled much of the country until Kenyan forces invaded in 2011.

Somalia is a battleground not only for its own rival factions, but also for the U.S. and its allies in the fight against al Qaeda, which is opening up Africa as a new global front line.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the international community should be careful to avoid Somalia becoming a hotbed for radicalism.

"If we ignore it, we will be making the same mistakes in Somalia that we made in Afghanistan in the 1990s. I'm not prepared to let that happen," he told the summit on Tuesday. 

To that end, the U.S. has pumped more than $1.5 billion worth of assistance into the country since 2009, including the $40 million pledged on Tuesday. It is among the countries pledging aid in the hope that stability will encourage security.

The fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 left Somalia without effective central government and awash with weapons.

But there are signs of fragile progress. Airplanes flying in from neighboring Kenya are filled with members of the diaspora returning home after being forced out by hunger and civil war.

Last year, Turkish Airlines decided to start a commercial service from Istanbul. Officials in Mogadishu hope that the city’s beaches might one day attract a significant number of tourists on those flights. 

But Somalia’s renaissance has limits. Mogadishu is still considered too dangerous to host a meeting of world leaders and senior government officials.

Although al-Shabab has been pushed to the outskirts of the capital by foreign peacekeepers, it maintains the ability to strike at its heart.

Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP - Getty Images

Security surround the area following a suicide attack on a government convoy in Mogadishu on May 5. Around 11 people were killed.

It proved its deadly potential on April 14 when terrorists attacked Mogadishu’s courthouse. A deadly car bomb was detonated in the center of the city a month earlier. On Sunday, a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a convoy carrying Qatari officials, killing at least eight Somalis.

Ahmed Soliman, research assistant at British think tank Chatham House, believes such attacks will become more frequent as al-Shabab tries to disrupt areas it no longer controls.

“Al-Shabab still controls the majority of rural and south-central areas of Somalia,” he said. “The shift toward insurgent attacks could be a sign of weakness – that it has been forced to change tactics and attack areas that it no longer dominates.  But I think it could also play a game of cat-and-mouse with foreign troops by trying to make gains in northern areas just as the troops establish control in south-central areas.”

“It is being kept at bay by international forces under AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia] but that will only last as long as those forces are there. Things are undoubtedly changing, but the jury is still out on whether al-Shabab has been defeated.”

Abdulhakim Haji Faqi, Somalia's defense minister, said his country's forces desperately need military resources. 

Abdulhakim Haji Faqi, Somalia's defense minister, discusses the threat posed by al-Shabab.

"In order to win this war against al-Shabab, we need to get the proper equipment," he said. "We are not asking for air forces, we are not asking for ships, we are not asking for huge military equipment, we are asking only for light weapons and ammunition so that our soldiers can effectively fight."

He added that this was an "international issue," not just a problem for Somalia as extremists from Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan -- as well as the U.S., Canada and Britain -- had been operating in the country.

"International organizations based in Somalia are trying to attack neighboring countries in the region and are also trying to cause international problems elsewhere," he said. 

Somalia’s fledgling U.N.-backed government, which took power in September after more than a decade of transitional rule, insists things are looking up – but admits the process will take time.

“Somalia is a country that has been exposed to anarchy for over two decades,” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told the U.K.’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper in an interview ahead of the summit. “When I was elected I was attacked within two days, and there were suicide bombers in every corner of my hotel. There are threats against me all the time.”

“There is a huge amount at stake in Somalia: the future of this country, the security of the region, the removal of the piracy stranglehold," he added.

The sharp reduction in attacks on commercial ships off East Africa has been driven by a government amnesty for young pirates backed by international military patrols.

Dai Kurokawa / EPA

Somali refugees are seeking shelter in Mogadishu and Kenya from extreme drought and hunger in what the UN's refugee agency is calling the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

“As long as the international naval presence remains, piracy rates will stay low,” said Adjoa Anyimadu, research associate at Chatham House.  “It’s impressive how much countries have worked together to provide naval protection - China and Russia are among those working in the U.S.-led operation.”

In another potential sign of recovery, Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson wants to shift aid efforts away from away from humanitarian aid and toward development projects. The U.N. estimates Somalia will need $1.33 billion this year.

The country still faces desperate poverty. More than 200,000 children under 5 are acutely malnourished, and just under half of Somalis live on less than $1 a day.

Millions still live in refugee camps, and that country lacks government structures such as schools, hospitals and sanitation.

"The main reason we have hope now, more than ever .... is we now have a leadership which has a sense of responsibility," Eliasson told Reuters on Tuesday.  "The trend is positive, but it has been interrupted, and it might still be interrupted by sporadic attacks of the nature we have seen. Al-Shabab are still a threat.”

Al-Shabab is blamed not only for causing instability across the Horn of Africa, but for contributing to the famine that struck Somalia between 2010 and 2012. According to a report released last week by the U.S.-funded famine early warning system (FEWSNET) and the United Nations, more than a quarter of a million people died during the crisis.

A peaceful solution to these problems is far from likely. Al-Shabab remains an attractive organization to many in country where youth unemployment is running at about 70 per cent. “Al-Shabab pays its fighters and gives them food,” Soliman noted.

“Several of its commanders are high on the list of the U.S. government list of most wanted terrorists,” so direct peace talks are off the agenda, Soliman said. However, unofficial meetings with Somalia’s government are possible.

There are also problems with the country’s own forces. In a report published Monday, Human Rights Watch said it had documented “serious abuses” by Somali security forces, including the army, police, intelligence agencies, and government-affiliated militia.

“Abuses documented include murder, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and looting,” the report said. “These abuses were committed with almost complete impunity.”

However, Somalia’s president remains committed to the task ahead. “One thing is very clear…that Somalia is fragmented into pieces,” Mohamud said. “Reversing all that has been happening in the past two decades is a very tedious work that requires some time.”

NBC News' Michele Neubert and Alastair Jamieson and Reuters contributed to this report.

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