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The Rise and Fall of Somalia’s Pirate King

And the reverse-Argo sting that bagged him.

As the Somali piracy blockbuster Captain Phillips raked in $26 million in its opening weekend on U.S. screens, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known as "Afweyne," was on a flight to Belgium with gainful plans to sell a very different story about East African marauders. Expecting to consult on a movie based on his life as a seafaring bandit, Afweyne and his associate were instead arrested by Belgian police and charged with the crimes of piracy and hostage taking. The two men had fallen for a hard-to-believe, reverse-Argo ruse -- a months-long sting operation set in motion to catch the mastermind behind the 2009 hijacking and ransom of the Belgian-owned dredging vessel Pompei.

While some 1,000 Somali pirate foot soldiers have been jailed in over a dozen countries, Afweyne --whose sobriquet means "big mouth" or "crybaby" -- will be the first pirate leader to be prosecuted by the international community when his criminal trial opens in Belgium.

Though his hopes of being immortalized on the big screen have been dashed, Afweyne, more than any other pirate, is responsible for making Somali piracy into an organized, multi-million-dollar industry. According to a recent World Bank report, Somali piracy raked in an estimated $339 million to $413 million in ransom spoils between 2005 and 2013. Like many of his comrades, Afweyne asserts that he not a "kidnapper," but the leader of a "legitimate self-defense movement" dedicated to protecting Somalia's marine resources. While some of Somalia's first pirates operating from the autonomous region of Puntland could claim -- for a time -- to be "coastguards" levying a taxes on illegal foreign fishing, Afweyne was not one of them. Rather, he was shrewd businessman who sought to replicate Puntland's cottage pirate industry on a commercial scale, based out of his native Harardhere in central Somalia.

Beginning in 2003, the former civil servant was plying investors with a self-described "very good business idea" and headhunting veteran pirates from Puntland to train his own "Somali Marines." The result was the birth of modern Somali piracy: organized bands of skiffs and supporting motherships hunting hundreds of miles from shore for commercial vessels that would deliver multi-million-dollar ransoms.

The boom years were good for Afweyne. The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has linked the Somali kingpin to at least seven hijackings in 2009 alone, while secondary reports tie him to dozens of others, including those of the supertanker Sirius Star and the Russian tank-laden MV Faina in 2008. Afweyne even had something of a cult following and was revered as a national hero by the late Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, who invited him to a four-day celebration in Libya in 2009.

Like any good crime boss, Afweyne sought to diversify his investments while minimizing his personal risk. Given its popularity among pirates, trade in the leafy drug khat was a natural outgrowth of the flagship enterprise. Cash from Afweyne's ransom spoils, according to a 2011 U.N. report, was poured into khat procurement in Kenya. The produce was then flown back to Harardhere and sold up and down the Somali coast, with pirates willing to pay three times the street price. By 2010, Afweyne had handed the reins of piracy operations over to his son Abdiqaadir, enabling him to focus full-time on managing a business empire that stretched from Dubai to India.

Of course, it wasn't all smooth sailing. One business risk that required mitigation was the Islamist militia al-Shabab, which was encroaching on the pirate heartlands of Harardhere and Hobyo by 2010. Al-Shabab had initially vowed to shut down the un-Islamic crime of piracy, but the group's ideological purity quickly gave way to financial pragmatism. In 2010, Afweyne and his commanders reportedly became the first pirate operation to enter into a formal agreement with the Islamists -- pledging to fork over a $100,000 tax per hijacking ransom in exchange for non-interference. Afweyne himself admitted in an interview that al-Shabab were receiving 5 percent of his ransom spoils as a security fee. "There is no political relationship, only one based on money," he told the Spanish daily newspaper ABC. Afweyne has since denied that his gang was ever involved with the al Qaeda-affiliated militia, but the relationship was ongoing as of April 2012, according to statements made by his son.

That was also the year that improved security measures started to really cut into Afweyne's bottom line. While hijacked ships continued to bring in multi-million-dollar ransoms, it was becoming harder and harder to catch them -- and a lot more dangerous to try. In 2010, there were 49 successful hijackings off the coast of Somalia. In 2011, there were 28; by 2012, that number had fallen to 14. Not only were more and more ships carrying armed guards, EU and U.S. coalition naval forces had adopted more vigorous rules of engagement, arresting suspected pirates and destroying their vessels at an increased rate. It was likely with this cost-benefit calculation in mind that Afweyne publicly denounced the piracy business and proclaimed his retirement in January 2013.

His new career, the retiree explained, would focus on rehabilitating former pirates: "I have also been encouraging many of my colleagues to renounce piracy too, and they have done it," he told reporters earlier this year.

Afweyne's quest for redemption reportedly began back in 2010, when he was pardoned by the president of the autonomous Somali state of Himan and Heeb, Mohamed Aden Tiicey. Two years later, his supposed involvement in counter-piracy activities earned him a diplomatic passport from the presidential office of Somalia's then Transitional Federal Government. This official protection, to the dismay of the U.N. Monitoring Group, allowed the notorious pirate leader to travel unmolested through Malaysia in April 2012. Shortly after, both the Seychelles and Belgium issued an INTERPOL Red Notice for Afweyne's arrest.

Likely aware of the international charges against him, the ex-pirate kingpin sought to endear himself to the newly elected Somali Federal Government (SFG), and to negotiate an agreement for a Somalia-wide pirate amnesty and rehabilitation program. In January and February 2013, a series of meetings, brokered by Mohamed Tiicey, were held between top leaders of the Hobyo-Harardhere Piracy Network, and senior officials of the SFG.

Around the same time, Afweyne established the Somali Anti-Piracy Agency in Mogadishu and attempted to solicit international and government funding for rehabilitation camps that would provide skills training to reformed pirates. Afweyne and his son also tried to negotiate a Grand Bargain in which all of the Hobyo-Harardhere Network's remaining hostages would be freed in return for an alleged payment of $2 million from the SFG. The deal reportedly collapsed over a misappropriation of funds and internal disagreement that left one pirate negotiator dead on February 17.

A little less than two weeks later, SFG President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud issued an official letter stating that an amnesty program would be launched for "young boys lured into piracy," but that this did not apply "to the pirate kingpins who take most of the money." This latter category, according to the SFG, did not include Afweyne or his son. By this point, however, the net had already been cast as part of an ingenious international ploy to bring the former pirate kingpin to justice.

While hijackings have fallen under the jurisdiction of some 80 different countries, it was largely the efforts of two small states that brought down the godfather of Somali piracy. In April 2009, both the Belgian-owned Pompei and Seychellois-crewed Indian Ocean Explorer were captured by what appeared to be the same pirate gang and anchored close together off Harardhere. After the release of the hostages, the two governments began to exchange information pertaining to their respective investigations. Two years later, naval forces detained six suspected pirates and transferred them to the Seychelles for investigation. After the suspects' fingerprints and photos were sent to INTERPOL for analysis, a match came back for a print found on the Pompei. The suspect, Keelo Kute, was then extradited to Belgium and, after being identified by one of the vessel's officers, convicted for the hijacking of the Pompei.

Though mounting evidence and testimony linked Afweyne to the hijacking, Belgian authorities remained convinced that the fragile Somali government would not extradite him. As a result, they hatched a far-out plan involving undercover agents from the Belgian federal police and special crime unit. Posing as filmmakers, the officers reached their target through an appeal to Tiicey, then Afweyne's partner in pirate rehabilitation. After months of careful negotiations, the two men agreed to fly to Brussels and participate in the imaginary film. When they arrived, Belgian authorities happily arrested Afweyne and transported him to a Bruges prison cell, where he is currently awaiting trial. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years for piracy and 30 years for hostage taking.

But the case against Afweyne is far from a slam-dunk. The ex-pirate has considerable financial resources with which to mount a defense -- his assets were never sanctioned -- and his position of authority within his clan and region, and favor with the Somali Federal Government could work in his favor. Afweyne's diplomatic passport is "not worth the paper it's written on," as one British official recently put it, but it is possible that the SFG may attempt to intervene on his behalf because of his recent anti-piracy activities. Public demonstrations against the arrest have already erupted in Himan and Heeb.

There is also a more worrying possibility. According to maritime risk consultant Michael G. Frodl, Afweyne's son, Abdiqaadir, might well attempt to the leverage his fathers' release by capturing a Belgian hostage. "Somali clan dispute resolution rules are based on equity and compensation," says Frodl. "If you take a leader or elder, they'll come for one of yours." And while the targeted hijacking of a Belgian vessel appears unlikely because of enhanced security measures, Afweyne's still-intact "Somali Marines" could attempt to kidnap a European aid worker or diplomat on land -- or even use their connections with other armed groups to procure a hostage from as far away as Kenya or Yemen. 

Afweyne's arrest should serve as a "warning shot across the bows" for other pirate leaders and organizers, said the head of INTERPOL's Maritime Security Unit, Pierre St. Hilaire. More likely, however, the kingpin's takedown, coupled with a seven-year low in Somali pirate attacks, will result in a "mission accomplished" mindset for international prosecutors and anti-piracy forces. NATO and EU counter-piracy operations are set to expire next year and it is likely that investigative efforts will suffer a similar mission fatigue.

Somalia's remaining pirate kingpins, enjoying impunity at home, will surely be more cautious about foreign travel in the future, making Argo-like lures unlikely to work a second time. As funding pirate ventures becomes increasingly unprofitable, a quiet retirement becomes an attractive option -- at least until the warships and armed guards disappear.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

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