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.



Sherman's March

Meet the social worker turned nuclear negotiator who's trying to keep Iran from getting the bomb.

Wendy Sherman, the U.S. State Department's chief nuclear negotiator, held talks 13 years ago with the leaders of one opaque, mercurial country prone to deception and rabidly anti-American rhetoric. Those talks were ultimately a bust. This week she'll hold talks with the leaders of another opaque, mercurial country prone to deception and rabidly anti-American rhetoric. The success of those new negotiations could spell the difference between a long-term peace and a perilous showdown -- and give Sherman a rare second chance to prevent a U.S. adversary from getting a nuclear weapon.

Sherman, who was part of the U.S. team that negotiated with North Korea in the 1990s, heads the American delegation that will sit down with senior Iranian officials in Geneva on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to open talks over the future of Iran's nuclear program. Little known outside the State Department, Sherman faces the extraordinarily difficult task of determining whether the moderate tone of Iran's new leader, Hasan Rouhani, means that Tehran is genuinely prepared to open its nuclear sites to international inspection and halt its enrichment of certain types of uranium or is simply trying to wring concessions from the West.

Sherman, a highly regarded diplomat known for her steely demeanor and attention to detail, travels to Switzerland holding both a carrot and a stick. In Senate testimony this month, she said Barack Obama's administration is prepared to offer Iran some short-term sanctions relief if Tehran takes "verifiable, concrete actions" to delay its nuclear program. Sherman also urged lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran until she can gauge how seriously the Iranians are prepared to negotiate. If they don't appear genuinely willing to accept far-reaching limits on their nuclear program, she said the administration would support a congressional push to put hard-hitting new restrictions on Iran's mining and construction sectors. Her team, Sherman said, has a simple message for its Iranian counterparts:

"Come on the 15th of October with concrete, substantive actions that you will take, commitments you will make in a verifiable way, monitoring and verification that you will sign up to, to create some faith that there is reality to this, and our Congress will listen," Sherman said. "But I can assure you, if you do not come on the 15th and 16th with that substantive plan that is real and verifiable, our Congress will take action, and we will support them to do so." In other words, be prepared to deal or be prepared for more economic pain.

Many Republicans reacted warmly to Sherman's testimony. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a longtime critic of the administration's Iran policy, said he was relieved to hear Sherman say that the White House would back new sanctions if the current round of talks failed.

"That's a pretty clear answer and one I didn't really expect," he told her. "We've been getting some mixed signals from others within the administration."

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sherman's boss during Bill Clinton's administration, said her former aide was known for that kind of straight talk. "She had this amazing ability to separate fact from fiction," Albright told Foreign Policy. "She basically served as my watchdog."

Sherman, a rail-thin woman with a shock of gray hair, has followed an unusual path to her current post as the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the No. 3 position in the State Department. A Maryland native, she studied sociology and urban studies in college and then got a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland. She met her husband, journalist Bruce Stokes, in 1978 after they'd gotten together to talk about low-income housing. Unlike most of her peers at the State Department, Sherman's first jobs were in partisan politics and social work, not diplomacy. She was the director of EMILY's List, which provides money to pro-choice, female, Democratic political candidates, and she ran the successful Senate campaign of then-Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. She also served as director of Maryland's office of child welfare and as the president and CEO of the Fannie Mae Foundation, the charitable arm of the mortgage-lending giant.

Sherman left Fannie Mae in 1997, when Albright made her the State Department's counselor, one of its top posts. Albright told Foreign Policy that they worked together virtually every day and eventually became good friends. The two women threw a joint Halloween party -- Albright came dressed in a colorful Moroccan wedding gown, Sherman dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Mikulski came as a cowgirl -- and Stokes said he and Sherman cherish a photo of their daughter sitting in Albright's ornate chair at the State Department. After leaving government in 2001, Sherman spent several years working for her former boss at Albright Stonebridge, a consultancy. During the 2008 Democratic primary, Sherman served as one of candidate Hillary Clinton's top foreign-policy advisors. As secretary of state, Clinton, in turn, brought Sherman back to the State Department in 2011 as the undersecretary of state for political affairs. "I joke that I remain a community organizer," she told National Journal this summer. "My caseload has just changed."

Stokes said that his wife has always been careful not to talk to him about her work, even when the issues at stake have seemed relatively trivial. During the 1988 presidential convention, Sherman was given the sensitive job of negotiating with the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson about whether he'd be allowed to speak to the crowd. Stokes was covering the convention for National Journal, and he remembers seeing his wife in a hotel bar and asking her whether the rumors he'd been hearing about Jackson's speech were correct. "We'll just have to see, won't we?" Sherman told him before standing up and walking away. The couple have been married for 33 years and are expecting their first grandchild.

This week's talks with Iran won't be the first time that Sherman has had to gauge the true intentions of a longtime U.S. adversary. Sherman was one of Albright's top aides in 1999 and 2000 when Washington and Pyongyang engaged in marathon talks designed to limit the development and export of North Korean long-range missiles in exchange for American financial aid and the delivery of several long-promised civilian nuclear reactors.

The talks advanced so far that North Korea agreed to a moratorium on new missile testing and sent a senior military officer on an official visit to the United States for the first time. Albright reciprocated by traveling to Pyongyang in October 2000, making her the most senior U.S. official to visit North Korea since the end of the Korean War.

It was a memorable trip. After one particularly long day of negotiations, then-leader Kim Jong Il brought Albright, Sherman, and the American negotiators to a cavernous Pyongyang soccer stadium for a synchronized dance performance that ended with thousands of North Koreans forming themselves into a giant image of the country's Taepodong missile. Years later, Sherman recalled complimenting Kim on the spectacle.

"'Mr. Chairman, I have the sense that in some other life, you were a great director,'" she says she told him at the time, according to an interview she gave to NPR. "And he said, 'Yes.' He cared about this a great deal. He owned every Academy Award movie. He had watched them all. He also had every film of Michael Jordan's NBA basketball games and had watched them as well."

Senior administration officials were so optimistic about the prospects of a deal that they began making plans for Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang to move the negotiations closer to the finish line.

Sherman was tabbed to lead the follow-on talks, which were supposed to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in late 2000. She was traveling through southern Africa with a suitcase full of the business suits she'd need for those meetings when word came down that the talks were being called off because of the disputed presidential election back home. The White House was unable to finalize a deal before the end of Clinton's term, and the president never visited North Korea.

In March 2001, Sherman penned a New York Times op-ed urging the new administration of George W. Bush to continue the negotiations with North Korea. Bush, she wrote, had the chance to "close the deal with North Korea that came tantalizingly close for President Bill Clinton in his final days in office." Bush instead cut off the direct talks with Pyongyang, effectively putting years of diplomacy into deep freeze.

Sherman's willingness to make concessions to North Korea in exchange for movement on its nuclear program put her squarely in Republican cross-hairs. In March 1999, former Secretary of State James Baker wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that said an initial deal that the Clinton administration had struck with Pyongyang was part of a failed "policy of appeasement." John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, resuscitated the charge when Sherman was nominated to her current post in the summer of 2011. The diplomat, he told the Washington Post, had been "centrally involved" in the unsuccessful attempt to funnel money to Pyongyang in exchange for new limits on its nuclear program.

Rhetoric aside, there's no question that Washington's long-standing diplomatic outreach to North Korea failed to eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear program. In 2006, North Korea surprised the West by conducting a test detonation of a nuclear weapon. Bush returned to the negotiating table and struck a deal in February 2007 that called for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. aid and the lifting of Western sanctions on the country. The agreement fell apart just one year later, and North Korea now has a small but growing nuclear arsenal.

There are some similarities between the current talks with Iran and the earlier negotiations with North Korea, even though they are far from a direct match. Like Tehran today, Pyongyang wanted to get out from under the heel of punishing Western sanctions. Kim didn't mount the same kind of charm offensive that Rouhani has launched, but he played the part of gracious host while Albright was in Pyongyang and was photographed clinking glasses of champagne with her at an official dinner. That said, North Korea was a more dangerous country in the 1990s than Iran is today -- far closer to the successful development of a nuclear weapon than American intelligence knew at the time. Not only does Iran still have to overcome some key technical hurdles before developing enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, U.S. officials believe, but the Iranians still don't have powerful-enough missiles to threaten anyone outside their immediate region. Resolving those challenges could take at least one year, and potentially more.

Gary Samore, who served as Obama's chief advisor on weapons of mass destruction until earlier this year, said that the United States had managed to delay North Korea's nuclear program for a few years but had been unable to persuade Pyongyang to abandon it altogether. He said this might be the most that could be expected from this week's talks with Iran, which begin with both sides' demands already largely laid out. Tehran wants freedom from the Western sanctions against its banking and oil sectors that have decimated its economy and have driven the value of its currency to record lows. Washington wants Iran to stop enriching uranium to a purity level of 20 percent, reduce its existing stockpiles of that type of uranium, put its nuclear facilities under strict international supervision, and shutter its heavily fortified underground uranium-enrichment facility near Qom. U.S. and Israeli officials believe the facility plays a key role in Iran's push for a nuclear weapon because it would be extremely difficult to destroy from the air. "The supreme leader won't give up his desire for a nuclear capability," Samore said. "The best we'll be able to do is come up with an agreement that limits, delays, and contains Iran's nuclear program. I don't think there's any chance they'll give it up altogether. We're not in a position to dictate those types of terms to them."

All the same, Sherman, who Samore describes as having an "iron fist in a velvet glove," will have to get as much from the talks as she can. Her work will be closely followed in the capitals of key allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which fear that the Obama administration is prepared to accept a deal that would leave Iran with the ability to continue enriching uranium. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recent described Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and reiterated his promise that Israel would act militarily, alone if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Qom facility would likely be at the top of any Israeli target list. Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who worked with Sherman during the on-again, off-again negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s, said she is a skilled negotiator with a deep understanding of the complex politics surrounding the nuclear talks, particularly among skeptics from both parties on Capitol Hill. "She knows that world," he said.

Still, Samore cautioned that the success of the talks will be determined by Iran's willingness to strike a deal, not just Sherman's talents at the negotiating table.

"We're in very good hands in terms of skills and toughness of our negotiator," he said. "But no matter how good a negotiator you are, if the other side isn't prepared to negotiate, you're not going to get anywhere."

Sherman herself seems to understand that potential pitfall quite well.

"No deal," she told the Senate this month, "is better than a bad deal."

Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images