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The US government is strutting and crowing about another lifetime conviction for a pirate. Billed as "the highest-ranking pirate ever brought to U.S. shores to face charges," Mohammed Saalil Shibin's capture and conviction says more about the US understanding of piracy than its ability to shut it down via legal or military intimidation. The convicted is a 56 year old, Qhardo-born, former unemployed NGO-turned-ransom negotiating ace, He is not actually a pirate in the classic sense but rather an land based interpreter who worked with a number of pirates, shipowners and security companies to negotiate ransoms and the release of ships and crew. He would board hijacked ships but most of his work was done over the phone.
Shibin was found guilty of piracy, kidnapping and hostage-taking in the February 2011 hijacking of the SV Quest and for the capture for the seizure of a German merchant ship in 2010 and given mandatory life in prison for piracy. Despite what the US justice system would have you believe, Shibin was and is just one of many interlocutors hired to negotiate ransoms. He just happened to pick up the phone on the wrong kidnap. All that is really needed to be employed as a pirate negotiator is a mobile phone, a pocket of SIM cards, language skills, and a little entrepreneurial gravitas. A recent United Nations Report identified five "important negotiators" of which Shibin was just one of five names listed.
FBI Assistant Director in Charge Janice K. Fedarcyk announced, "The stiff sentence handed down today sends a clear message to others who would interfere with American vessels or do harm to Americans on the high seas: Whatever seas you ply, you are not beyond the reach of American justice, and you will be held accountable for your actions."
The problem is that for every Shibin that is taken out of the game there are dozens of eager replacements standing by.
Harsh Penalties, Harsher Repercussions
Deja vu? On February 16th, 2011 Galkayo-born, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse was sentenced to 405 months in United States federal prison for his participation in the April 8, 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. The pirates demanded $3.5 million but their plans for a smooth ransom negotiation were sent into a violent spin by the arrival of a special operations team of American commandos.
That harsh sentence is similar to what child molesters, murders and con artists get in the United States, except that Muse pleaded guilty and there were no laws against piracy in his home country. Muse didnt' seem like the sharpest pirate. He had no idea how old he was - somewhere between 16 and 26 was his best guess and he spent much of his very public arrival in the US beaming like he had won the lottery. The diminutive 5' 2" Muse was both lucky having captured two other ships previously and unlucky, since he was the only surviving member of his pirate gang left alive after the violent outcome of Navy SEAL rescue operation.
So with three clean head shots, the surviving pirate confessing, a stiff sentence handed down that should be it for any further attacks on U.S. vessels.
On February 19th, only three days after Muse's much publicized sentence, the SV Quest, a yacht with four Americans loaded down with bibles was taken south of Oman. The taking of the yacht was actually spurred by the cruel sentence and the desire of the Somalia pirates to free their friends from captivity in the United States. Thankfully US flagged ships are rare and pirates aren’t that picky but the timing was embarrassing to the US government. In reality the undefended yacht was just another easy target for sharp-eyed pirates. The pirates knew that individual captives would bring between $500K and $1 million making the four hostages worth as much as an entire commercial vessel and crew five times the size. They also knew very well that three of their kinfolk had been killed by US snipers just a few months earlier. But the message sent by the US military and justice system didn’t even slow them down. America reacted to the yacht hijacking with a force only equalled in Michael Bey films.
But the sight of the USS Enterprise and three massive US warships 600 yards off apparently didn’t phase the 19 pirates crammed on to the 58 foot yacht.
The owners of the yacht SV Quest had set off from California in 2004 to sail around the world. Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with co-sailors Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle thought they would break off from a yacht race to distribute some bibles. Little did they know, there were about to get caught between a badly handled rescue attempt and the heartless rage of the pirates. Shibin was the pirate negotiator who was called in to get best price on four newly kidnapped American sailors onboard the SV Quest. The problem was that there were two groups of pirates. One demanded that that their compatriots in the US be returned in exchange for the four Americans and the other group was looking for cash. An act of piracy was escalated into a bloodbath. It was actually the lack of skilled negotiation that led to the deaths of the four Americans.
To show the kidnapping of Americans would not be tolerated, "Four U.S. Navy warships comprised the response force dedicated to recovering the SV Quest: the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55), the guided-missile destroyers USS Sterett (DDG 104) and USS Bulkeley (DDG 84)," according to the US Navy's CENTCOM.
Never Negotiate With Pirate Sea Teams or SEAL Teams
On February 21st, an FBI hostage negotiating team was flown on board the Sterett, as were Somali pirates. These federal agents made the fatal mistake of trying to negotiate with the motley crew of amped-up pirates instead of the investors. The US terms were that the pirates could leave the hostages and take the yacht. They had it backwards.
They realized too late that Somalis who have the disposition to board ships at full sail from tiny skiffs are not psychologically inclined or trained in the finer points of negotiation. The yacht was slowed in the water, two pirates were taken on board the USS Sterret and after four days, an RPG was fired in frustration at the warship by the pirates and shots began to be heard aboard the yacht. A boarding party of SEALS desperately tried to overpower the pirates to save the hostages but arrived too late.
A measure of the desperate attack was this was the most recent publicized time that a US Navy sailor has killed an enemy with a knife. But was this bravery and negotiating stance the right approach?
Had the Navy waited for the ship to reach shore and Shibin to negotiate the going price for a foreigner with family members, history shows that all four would be alive today. It would then be left to the US military to bring the kidnappers and negotiators to justice on their terms. The argument could be made that Shibin could have saved the lives of the four Americans had the normal non-lethal business model of the pirates been kept in place.
Federal prosecutors are now seeking the execution of Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar for the SV Quest hijacking. All but four of the 26 counts filed in Norfolk, Virginia are eligible for the death penalty. Of the 15 pirates, ten have pleaded guilty, three were charged with the crime of killing the American sailors. Once again there is little to indicate that this will have any impact on piracy or pirates. But going after the sea crews and negotiators seems to be the only concrete movement.
There is no argument that pirates, whether they murder or not, deserve the harshest punishment. But there is no proof that the effort spent applying international law in foreign courts and jails or even directing the full force of the world's most powerful warships has any impact on the crime of piracy. Thousands of pirates have been killed, imprisoned, caught and released and statistics show that although success rates are dramatically down, pirates range further and more violently in their quest for riches. If anything pirate tactics are becoming harsher and negotiators tougher. Although hijackings have dropped due to on board security, the zeal and attempts of pirates maintain high. An overly simplistic solution but an effective and relatively cheap one compared to steaming battleships around the vast Indian Ocean.
America is just one of many nations who go through the expense and effort of convicting and incarcerating Somali pirates thinking that somehow this will dissuade other Somalia’s from taking to the sea to find riches. There are over 1400 pirates in jail in over 20 countries. Most of them (including king pins like Booyah) in Puntland, a place where their families can visit every Friday. When Somalia Report visiting Bosaso prison a 13 year old pirate was unfazed by being in jail with his heroes. So much for setting an example.
Disposable Negotiators for Precious Cargo
The primary skill in being a negotiator is the ability to speak the language of the ship's owner. Typically this is English, the lingua franca of seafarers. A phone is required. Typically it is the ship's satellite phone but can be transferred to a land based mobile phone or if the ship is parked close enough to shore, the local mobile system which is excellent. Multiple SIM cards must be used and it is important to whipsaw the owners. Many owners are forced to handle their own negotiations, other's rely on British, offshore or nationally based security companies. These companies have trained men who have a list of gambits and ploys to deal with pirate hagglers.
Typical negotiator moves would be trying to go around the assigned professional negotiators, filming sobbing hostages (complete with hankie wiping) to post on YouTube, calling Somalia Report and other media outlets, with dire descriptions of ill health, moving maritime hostages on land and vice versa, replacing negotiators to reboot deals, beating hostages while on the phone, reneging on deals at the last minute, making hostages call their loved ones and in some extreme cases amputation, burning and execution.
It must be remembered that the classic business model of Somali piracy is based on keeping the ship, cargo and crew intact and working within known insurance payouts. Violence, damage or bad faith only encourage violent intervention.
The levels a negotiator must deal with are:
1) Nothing. In the case of ships like the MV Iceberg and many dhows there simply is no return on the pirates crime;Negotiators Targeted by Law Enforcement
2) Token amounts paid due to local pressure, typically only valid for Somali owned ships $60K - $150K;
3) Accept hull insurance level payments. Likely around the value of the ship somewhere between $2.5M to $5M depending on value of ship;
4) Get a negotiated insurance payment, now ranging between $1.5M and $12M or;
5) Interdiction, arrest or death. Something certain countries like the US, South Korea, Iran, Russia, UAE lean towards. India has had over 500 of its sailors kidnapped but has an on and off again policy to rescue them. The Philippines has had the largest number of captives with over 800 of its nationals kidnapped since 2006 and does little to nothing. Negotiators also must make sure they get paid. That is why they will be found aboard ship and take great pains to set up the specific terms of the ransom drop. Piracy is a crime in plain site and clearly tolerated as a cost of doing business by some nations.
The focus on negotiators and junior members of sea teams may an interesting example of where anti-piracy is staring at the wrong end of the elephant. The investors and western negotiators should bear more scrutiny. Or at least international law enforcement should admit how easy it is to capture both sea teams and negotiators. Since the majority of those captured have pleaded guilty there seems even less value in keeping them as guests for most of their lives. The arrest of Shibin was carried March out by the Puntland Intelligence Services while he was casually having tea in a public place in Bosaso. There was not much to indicate that Shibin was on the run or hiding from arrest. The FBI took credit for the supposedly daring arrest inside Somalia but in truth actually picked up Shibin in April from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Shibin is a known entity who has negotiated ship and crew ransoms before. Had the US Navy done as much research as Shibin did on the hostages they would have learned that pirates don’t normally kill or even harm their hostages. In many cases pirates have actually signed contracts specifying not only the ransom as well as the exact release details of their hostages and ship. It is the very open nature of this crime that makes law enforcement bombast sound suspect.
The black art of negotiating between pirates and representatives of the victims is an area that is deliberately left unexamined. Why? Because despite public denials, ransom payments of millions of dollars involves governments, law enforcement, monetary control groups, banks and security organizations to pay ransoms. It requires insurance companies to plan on profiting from insurance premiums, banks making large cash withdrawals, anti crime and corruption organizations approving payments for criminal extortion, security companies charging impressive fees for negotiation and delivering those ransoms and a less than stringent eye on exactly where $50 to $150M in cash vanishes every year. Even a recent grossly inaccurate and inflated academic estimate of $7 billion in "piracy costs" steadfastly refuse to be turned into estimates of "profits" from piracy.
At the bottom of this food chain are the negotiators who get a small percentage after the investors, holders and sea teams take their cut.
Although Shibin can be sentenced to life for what he does, what about the negotiators on the other side who have consistently and reliably placed hundreds of millions of dollars into kidnappers hands?
Negotiators: Criminals or Saviors?
It took the Somali government to put a sharper point on this concept. On May 24th 2011 the TFG took the unusual step of actually arresting a crew of six ransom droppers and confiscating the $3.6 million dollars, two expensive aircraft and putting them on trial. A month later after a quick kangaroo court behind closed doors the employees of security company Salama Fikira were sentenced to 15 years in a Somalia jail. It didn’t seem to matter that the TFG doesn’t actually have any laws against piracy. The whole matter was quietly 'fixed' but the $3.6 million is yet to be accounted for. This mirrors the pirates' mantel of respectability that they are saving the seas and protecting fishermen by hijacking and abusing mariners and shipping companies. Aren’t payers and negotiators of ransoms extending the time in captivity, enriching criminals and supporting the bubble of Somali piracy?
Bauer and Ballarin
The industry has evolved from clumsy amateurs to slick professionalism. Previous documented attempts by Andrew Mwangura, Julian Bauer and Michelle Ballarin (who calls herself 'Princess Amira') to negotiate ransoms with pirates have been mostly ignored by the media and law enforcement. The effect of western hostage negotiators has been to dramatically increase the amount paid to free captive ships and to extend the time mariners are held in captivity.
Julian Bauer (photo), a German national now living in the Karen district of Nairobi, purportedly runs an German registered NGO called Ecoterra. Despite his focus on protecting mariners and the sea, Bauer, according to two people who used to work with him, has helped pirates increase the size of ransoms and delay their freedom by researching ship owners, determine worth of cargo and even facilitated the flow of information to drive ransoms up, not downward. These eyewitnesses have provided Somalia Report with bank information and incidents where Bauer worked with kidnappers to their benefit.
He has also been in contact with pirates on the MV Iceberg urging them to take samples from rusting cylinders to prove that there are toxic chemicals inside. The cylinders are carrying clearly marked solvents and the pirates are not about to risk getting blown up or poisoned by proving what is already on the manifest. This is just one of many examples provided to Somalia Report on outsiders meddling in current hostage negotiations for their own benefit.
One of Bauer's associates told Somalia Report, "Bauer has established a relationship based on sympathy and it gives him access to pirates. Before the negotiation is pursued, the negotiator often contacts him and gives him all the details of the ship in exchange of getting information inaccessible to the pirates without internet. Bauer also contacts the families of the hostages and becomes the Nairobi hub that facilitates the connections."
"Secondly, he tries to step into the opening dialogue while acting that he cares for the hostages and this is how he safeguards his reputation with both sides (the company and pirates). He gives the pirates the information that gives publicity for their demands and to the pirates he gives them negotiating points," added the former associate.
Bauer's contacts reportedly include the notorious pirates, Yousuf and Loyaan. His former associate continues, "He used to pay some of his pirate negotiators like “Yousuf” by using the name “Farhiya Ali” as the sender name and he had a friend too in Dahabshiil's (money transfer) office in Nairobi with the name “Mohammed”. The same source also supplied Somalia Report with evidence of financial transfers made by a Kenyan university student and Bauer's banking information.
The ships Bauer is alledged to have been involved with are the MV Win Far 161 used in the Maersk Alabama hijacking. In the case of the North Korean-flagged MV RIM Bauer is said to have contacted the pirates and was said to have told the pirates that there were missiles from North Korea hidden in the clay. This drove the ransom up to $3 million for a ship that was about to scrapped. The ship left from Eritrea en route to Yemen. After being kidnapped the Syrian crew overpowered the pirates until foreign naval ships came to their aid. The ship was considered scrap and no weapons were found.
He also provided research on the South Korean-owned MV Samho Dream to the pirates. The Very Large Crude Carrier was ransomed for an unheard of $9.5 million dollars.
According to the same source, Bauer convinced pirates to keep four Thai nationals from the Prantalay 14 with promises that he could hammer out a ransom deal from the Thai embassy. Pirates demanded an ambitious $9 million for each of the four fleet fishing vessels until they were rescued by the Indian Navy.
Bauer is alledged to have been involved with the kidnap of the Danish family from the SV Ing and is instrumental in providing advice on the $6 million ransom. The family and crew were sailing a pleasure yacht. According to two people Somalia Report interviewed who worked with Bauer claim that he negotiated ransoms while running a fraudulent charity that purports to defend the rights of mariners. One of those sources insists that Bauer has collected the proceeds of negotiation money and had it sent to his German bank account. Bauer still intermittently publishes a piracy report that lists the status of vessels and their hostages.
Not to be outdone, Somalia Report was a witness to a call Ballarin made to US ex-military entities demanding that she handle the ransom payments in the case of the kidnapped UK couple, the Chandlers, in exchange for exclusive PR rights. Her demand that she alone hand over the ransom to the former Special Forces officer queered the deal. None of these people have been arrested or charged as in the case of Shibin but they have materially aided pirates. Just like the efforts of professional hostage negotiators, which they are not, both Bauer and Ballarin have allegedly extended innocent mariners time in captivity and increased the size of ransoms paid to criminals. It must also be remembered that many individuals have intervened as negotiators due to concern for the welfare of the hostages and in the lack of any formal framework, ransom amount or understanding of the criminality of aiding and abetting pirates. Something the recent harsh sentencing of Shihin by the U.S. government has made crystal clear.
In the early years of piracy it was quite common for pirates to appeal to anyone to find a go-between to negotiate the release of a ship. It wasn't until around 2009 that a new breed of professional Somali negotiators became well known to the maritime security industry. Correspondingly a small crew of negotiators has sprung up on the ransom payment side who, despite their training have only managed to extend hostage incarceration time and increase ransoms.
To understand the most basic form of negotiator Somalia Report contacted the “unarmed pirates”. These negotiators and ransom hagglers have two duties to perform: the first is to break the language barrier between vessel owner or captives and the pirates while the second is playing the role of an accountant during sharing of ransom payments among the pirates.
Somalia Report spoke to Tima-adde Keytun, a US national of Somali origin, who is now serving as a negotiator in the Garaad coastal area. “These unarmed men (interpreters from the diaspora) are just like armed pirates. The play a crucial role in ransom payment process, so they are very important men as far as piracy is involved," said a local villager in Garaad town, where Keytun is now based.
Keytun confirmed to Somalia Report that he relocated from the US to Gaaraad to serve as a negotiator. He left his Jewish wife in the US but his family knows nothing about her, he added.
Since his arrival in the area, he has boarded several ships to negotiate between the captives and their captures. Negotiators are always paid after the ransom is paid to pirates holding vessels or individuals.
“Being an interpreter is not the problem (with piracy) so I don’t understand why people like pointing their finger at me. I am not a pirate," said Keytun in an English with an American accent. But to the locals in Garaad, Keytun is no better than other pirates, the only difference being he is unarmed.
Keytun, however, says he is not alone in this trade of unarmed piracy. He says there are other Somalis who are in possession of North American passports who works with Somali pirates in the field. According to Keytun, these men are based in UAE and some countries in East Africa to coordinate the movements of vessels and their scheduled time to arrive in the coast of Somalia.
UK-born Khalid, a British national of French mother, joined the negotiator trade in 2009 only to be killed last year. He knew nothing about his Somali when he arrived in the country six years ago to understand his ancestral way of life and to study Islam.
After staying in Garaad for several years, Khalid found a new method of getting money, interpreting between Somali pirates and their captives.
Khalid was first injured in a fight between two pirate groups and was later killed in another shootout between his pirate group and Puntland’s anti-piracy forces in Galkayo. His fellow pirates later attacked the Puntland police station, kidnapped the soldier they accused of killing Khalid and executed him.
At the top of the negotiator food chain sits Abdi Saed Bafe Looyan (Loyaan or Looyaan, photo), the next negotiator after Shibin to be put on the international hit list. Although the UN dedicates seven pages to him in their July 2011 report and relied on a crude police sketch, Looyan is quite easy to find. He lives with his wife and two children in Garowe and when needed travels to the coastal areas to negotiate ransoms. Currently Looyan is in Galkayo with $500,000 from the estimated $9m ransom of the MT Enrico Ilevo.
Looyan is easily reachable using any one of his 20 different SIM cards, he is quite proud of what he does and he has wisely put his money into investments outside the country. His financial assets include a family run business operating several heavy trucks operating in Zambia. Somalia Report has identified at least two homes in Garowe and one in Galkayo. After skimming or earning a 5 to 10% fee from over two dozen hijacks, Looyan has done well for his investors and himself.
He was born in Garowe in 1979. Looyan finished his primary and intermediary education there. He lived in Dubai for two years between 1992 and 1994 to complete his secondary education. He speaks English, Arabic, Urdu and Somali. Between 2001 and 2003 he worked with Jubba Airways in Bosaso as their office manager. Between 2005 and 2007, he was the project manager of a local women’s NGO in Garowe, managing USAID funds allocated to a variety of projects through the partnership of CARE International. After a spell of unemployment he decided to use his English skills to get into the business of negotiating. Looyan started out working for an Eyl based pirate group that included, Abshir “Boyah (in Bososo Prision Abdulkadir Musse Hirsi Nur (arrested in 2010) aka “Computer”, Hobyo and Haradheere-based Abdullahi-based Ahmed Haji Farah aka ‘Abdi Yare’ or Small Abdi as well as “Abdiqadir the son of ‘Afweyne’ and Garaad”. He currently is doing more business with the Galmadug based gangs.
Looyan has worked as a negotiator on about two-dozen ships. At least six of those investor Abdi Yare and the bulk with his cousin Garaad.
His cousin Mohamed Abdi, aka “Garaad”, is the very same fellow who launched the team that grabbed the Maersk Alabama and many other ships. Prior to his career in piracy, Garaad was a member of the UK HART Security trained Puntland Coast Guard stood up in 1998 and shut down in 2000. Western expertise absorbed by enterprising Somali criminals seems to be a key part of the pirates success.
It was during the MV Olib G hijack that Looyan (via Garaad) reneged on an agreement just 48 hours before the vessel was due to be released. This resulted in higher ransom payment.
Despite Looyan’s newly found fame amongst the UN and law enforcement as the “top” negotiator, his star may be on the descent. In October of 2011 Looyan was brought in by Garaad after “Ali” was fired on the MV Blida ransom negotiation. The owner of the ship was the Algerian government and the ransom was stuck at the hull insurance level of just over $2 million. “Ali” the first negotiator could not get the owners to budge and signed a contract with the owner of the MV Blida specifying the drop time. At the last minute Ali was fired and Looyan cancelled the deal just as the owner had started the drop and refuel mission. Often the ransom drop and refit/refuel can coast up to $200,000.
Looyan tried a number of his tricks but could not get the ransom up the $4.5 million that Garaad demanded. Looyan had struck out. The deal was made at the original hull insurance price and Looyan was determined to get his reputation back. Before he left the Blida, the one eyed Looyan posed with the ransom payment (photo). Thereby cementing his fate as a conspirator in the business of kidnapping and piracy.
When Garaad called Looyan to negotiate the MT Enrico Ievoli he pulled out all the stops. Looyan used his trick of moving hostages onto land to force owners into speeding up negotiations. The owners settled for an unusually high ransom but it was concluded in four months. Publicly pirates boasted that the ransom was $9 million, realistically it would be around $5 million. Owner Domenico Levoli says no ransom was paid. Puntland police did arrest ten of the pirates including some investors on their way to the ship, but the money being spent and bragged about in Galkayo tells a different story.
If and when Looyan is arrested there will be a long line of takers for his lucrative job. Looyan is just one of about a dozen Somali pirate negotiators currently working on ships inside Somalia. Some are based in Europe, some in the UAE and most are based in the Horn of Africa. A few like Looyan still make the trek to each ship to personally handle the sat phone conversations, dealing with sick crewmembers and filming propaganda videos to encourage faster payment.
Looyan's Negotiated Ransoms
He prides himself on his tricks of the trade after successfully negotiating over 20 ships with ever increasing ransom prices.
1. MV Longchamp (29 Jan 2009-28 Mar 2009)
2. MV Malaspina Castle (06 Apr 2009-09 May 2009)
3. MV Win Far 161 (06 Apr 2009-11 Feb 2010)
4. MV Patriot (25 Apr 2009-22 May 2009)
5. MV Ariana (02 May 2009-10 Dec 2009)
8. MV St James Park (28 Dec 2009-04 May 2010)
9. MV Asian Glory (01 Jan 2010-11 Jun 2010)
10. MV Al Nisr Al Saudi (03 Mar 2010-07 Dec 2010)
11. MV Frigia (23 Mar 2010-29 Jul 2010)
12. MV Samho Dream (04 Apr 2010-06 Nov 2010)
13. MV Marida Marguerite (08 May 2010-28 Dec 2010)
14. MV Panega (11 May 2010-09 Sep 2010)
15. MV Polar (30 Oct 2010- 26 Aug 2011)
16. MV Hannibal II (11 Nov 2010-17 Mar 2011)
17. MV Jahan Moni (05 Dec 2010-14 Mar 2011)
18. MV Thor Nexus (25 Dec 2010-12 Apr 2011)
19. MV Sinin (12 Feb 2011-14 Aug 2011)
20. MV Irene SL (09 Feb 2011-08 Apr 2011)
21 MV Blida (1 Jan, 2011 - 03 Nov, 2011)
22 Enrico Ievoli (27 Dec 2011 – 23 April 2012)