Are Somali pirate negotiators guilty of piracy?
This past week a federal court judge decided that no, in at least one case, they probably aren't.
The ruling by District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle came in the case of a man I'd met and interviewed in Somaliland, Ali Mohamed Ali.
Ali was far from the fearsome, gun and RPG-wielding pirate that's portrayed in the news media. He was friendly, polite, and casually confident as we met in a hotel lobby in Hargeisa in September 2009. He spoke English with an American accent, thanks to the more than 20 years he'd lived in the U.S.
I had come across Ali, who asked me to use a pseudonym for him in my book, Pirate State, by a series of strange connections.
I'd been talking with the head of a Danish shipping company, Per Gullestrup, about his experience in negotiating the release of his company's ship and crew that had been hijacked by Somali pirates in November 2008. He'd had a rather hard time dealing with batallion of insurance company experts who collect high fees for their work, he explained, and had told him to put up and shut up.
For months the negotiations for the ship and crew of the CEC Future went nowhere until he got a call from a man known as Mr. Ali. Ali suggested that they cut out the middlemen and talk directly. Within weeks, a deal was struck. The ship and crew were soon released.
The piracy scenario played out hundreds of times, but this one was different. Never before had either the shipping company nor the pirate negotiator been so open about the process. Suddenly the world had a window on the sordid inner workings of the Somali pirates and ransom negotiations, all of which had previously been hidden from public view by paranoid shipping companies and their insurers.
The ordeal of acting as a negotiator had been terrifying. The Somali pirates were a crazed bunch, Ali explained, surly and unpredictable. At one point, Ali had been taken hostage himself.
When the ransom was delivered via an airdrop, brought on board, and divided among the pirate, there were bloody knife fights among the pirates over the money. Once on land, the fighting continued as the disgruntled pirates viciously turned on each other.
Ali had come into his role as a negotiator quite by accident. Living in Hargeisa, where he has a young son, he had been contacted months earlier to help with the release of a German couple whose small sailboat had been hijacked by Puntland pirates. The couple had been kidnapped and was held for ransom.
Ali told me he felt badly for the Germans, knowing that they'd been grabbed by desperate pirates who were unable to take a large commercial ship. He was able to help and eventually a ransom was paid, apparently by the German government, and the couple released.
The couple spent a several months in the Somaliland port of Berbera repairing their boat and eventually sailed away.
When I met Ali, he said he did not consider himself a negotiator and didn't want to be in the business. But, he felt compelled to help in these cases. I sensed he was sincere, since his fluency in English and familiarity with western culture made him a valuable commodity. But he had passed on many other opportunities to get involved.
Ali's life changed on April 20, 2011, when he was arrested by federal agents as he got off the airplane at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC.
He was jailed on a host of piracy charges, such as conspiracy, piracy, and hostage taking. He remained in jail until last week when Judge Huvelle ordered his release while he waits for his trial next year sometime.
Huvelle was irritated at prosecutors, whom she said had misled her on the case and called their behavior inexcusable. She said that prosecutors had been unable to show that Ali had "intentionally facilitated acts of piracy while he was on the high seas." According to the case, Ali had only been on the sea for less than 30 minutes, apparently only to visit the hijacked ship and crew.
I had all but forgotten Ali until this past spring when I got a call from an FBI investigator working on the case. I cooperated with the FBI, who asked if I would discuss my dealings with Ali. I reviewed my notes, but could find nothing that I had not already published and nothing that would support any of the piracy charges he faces.
When I mentioned that, the agent told me that you can't dabble in piracy. You're either part of the pirates, or you're not.
Judge Huvelle apparently disagrees.
While the government appeals the judge's rulings, Ali is under house arrest, reportedly living at a friend's house in Centreville, Virginia, about 20 miles west of Washington, DC. He wears a monitoring bracelet and can only leave to visit the local mosque and his lawyer.
While I support the full prosecution of Somali pirates, I don't think the government is going after the right man here.
I wish Ali well.