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 ‚ÄúAfweyne,‚Äù 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 ‚Äî 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 ‚Äìwhose sobriquet means ‚Äúbig mouth‚Äù or ‚Äúcrybaby‚Äù ‚Äî 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 ‚Äúkidnapper,‚Äù but the leader of a ‚Äúlegitimate self-defense movement‚Äù dedicated to protecting Somalia‚Äôs marine resources. While some of Somalia‚Äôs first pirates operating from the autonomous region of Puntland could claim ‚Äî for a time ‚Äî to be ‚Äúcoastguards‚Äù levying a taxes on illegal foreign fishing, Afweyne was not one of them. Rather, he was shrewd businessman who sought to replicate Puntland‚Äôs 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¬†‚Äúvery good business idea‚Äù¬†and headhunting veteran pirates from Puntland to train his own ‚ÄúSomali Marines.‚Äù 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äî 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. ‚ÄúThere is no political relationship, only one based on money,‚Äù 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‚Äôs bottom line. While hijacked ships continued to bring in multi-million-dollar ransoms, it was becoming harder and harder to catch them ‚Äî 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: ‚ÄúI have also been encouraging many of my colleagues to renounce piracy too, and they have done it,‚Äù he told reporters earlier this year.
Afweyne‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs arrest.