The Hobyo-Harardhere Pirate Network was probably the most notorious pirate gang in Somalia in 2009, and its ring leader was the pirate kingpin known as Afweyneh or “big mouth” whose real name is Mohammed Abdi Hassan. Abdi Hassan became notorious as his men engaged in a spree of ship hijackings that included kidnapping a British couple from their yacht, capturing a Saudi oil tanker, and a Ukrainian flagged ship that turned out to be loaded with 33 T-72 tanks. But the beginning of the end for Abdi Hassan actually came after his gang hijacked a Belgian vessel, the MV Pompei.
When Abdi Hassan’s pirates captured the Pompei in 2009, Belgian Special Forces immediately began planning to conduct a hostage rescue mission to recover the ship’s crew. A 9-man advanced party from the Belgian Special Operations Group traveled to the French air base, Base Aerienne 188, in Djibouti and began preparing for the eventual arrival of a 50-man element to conduct the hostage rescue mission.
From the United States, Belgium requested intelligence support, a U.S. Navy vessel to help them infiltrate to the Pompei, and the use of the U.S. military’s shoot house at Camp Lemonier to conduct mission rehearsals. The Deputy Commander of the Belgian Special Forces Group, Major Denolf, met with the Combined Joint Task Force: Horn of Africa to prepare for the operation. Today, Denolf has moved on to become the Special Forces Group commander.
The entire deployment was to be conducted under the cover of a pre-arranged joint training mission in Djibouti with the French which had already been scheduled months prior.
Why this mission was never executed is not known but considering that it took place in the context of a very complicated tactical and political environment, it is not surprising that the Belgian Special Forces Group was stood down. There were two other hijacked ships in the vicinity of the Pompei which also may have played into the planning process. More than likely it was a simple risk mitigation strategy. The Belgian government knew that they would face a domestic political firestorm if something went wrong during the raid and saw that the shipping company was prepared to pay the ransom anyway. From there it was probably a straight forward decision for policy makers.
With the ransom paid, the crew of the Pompei, including the two Belgian nationals, were released.
While the hostage rescue may have been a no-go, the Belgian police proved that there is more than one way to skin a cat. They caught up with Abdi Hassan a few years later in 2013.
The years were catching up with Somalia’s most notorious pirate. Hassan claimed to have left the piracy business and was even trying to stand up a pirate transition program with the Somalian government to provide job training to pirates who wanted to go legit.
Along for the ride with Hassan was Mohamed Aden, AKA “Tiiceey.” Tiiceey was a naturalized American citizen who spent about a decade living in Minnesota prior to returning to Somalia where he became Hassan’s self-styled governor. Hassan and Tiiceey may have been outlaws, but they did provide some basic services to the people living in the region that they controlled, services that the Somalian government couldn’t provide such as keeping the Islamic radicals of Al-Shabaab out of their way. Eventually, the two Somalian pirate lords had to pay off Al-Shabaab, but Hassan was made it clear that this was purely a financial relationship designed to keep the Islamists out of his hair.
Hassan and Tiiceey were shrewd business men who knew how to play the game and make the most out of the cards they were dealt. By starting a pirate rehabilitation program, Hassan killed two birds with one stone. First, he was able to rehabilitate his own image. The facade he put up was at least good enough to get the Somalian Transitional Government to issue him a diplomatic passport, his saving grace when he was stopped by authorities on a trip to Malaysia in 2012. Second, Hassan engaged in the age old Somalian scam-the-western-NGOs drill. Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations would pitch in money for a pirate rehabilitation program and no doubt Hassan was laughing all the way to the bank as he took their money.
Respect Afweyneh, Respect.
Behind the scenes, the stage had already been set for the demise of Tiiceey and Hassan’s careers as professional scallawags. Begium and the island nation of Seychelle had created a partnership to implement a law enforcement mechanism to deal with Somalian pirates. Six Somalian pirates were captured and sent to trail on Seychelle where it turned out that one of their fingerprints matched prints lifted from the Pompei. The six pirates belonged to Hassan’s crew and one of the Belgian sailors from the Pompei is said to have identified that pirate in a line up as well.
In 2013, Belgian authorities launched the culmination of a elaborate sting operation. Exactly how this operation was run is unknown, but it involved a clever ruse. Abdi Hassan was tricked into thinking that a Belgian production company wanted to bring him on as a consultant to a documentary they were making about his days as a pirate king in the lawless Harardhere region of Somalia. Allegedly outraged by the way Somalian pirates were portrayed in the American film “Captain Philips,” Hasan wanted to see his side of the story told as well.
While CIA Officer Tony Mendez created a fake movie called Argo to help smuggle American embassy workers out of Iran in the 1980’s, Belgian counter-terrorism police created a fake documentary to lure a bad guy into their country. Flying to Brussels with Tiiceey, the CGSU, Belgian’s version of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, slapped them both in handcuffs when they arrived at the airport.
“Regarding the significance of his arrest, I don’t think there will be anymore high profile arrests of pirate leaders or financiers,” James Bridger, a maritime security consultant informed us. “Their names, locations, and even banking details are known to intentional investigators, but the political will to go after them isn’t there.”
CGSU again made headlines again this year when they raided an apartment belonging to suspected ISIS fighters, killing two of them and arresting a third, in the town of Verviers. It was believed that the jihadists were planning an attack similar to the Charlie Hebdo assault in Paris.
Back in Somalia, the Hobyo-Harardhere Pirate Network is now run by Hasan’s son, Abdiqaadir who has offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who brings him a Belgian hostage that he could attempt to exchange for his father. Thus far, no one has collected.
Hassan was put on trial in Brugge, facing charges of hostage taking and running a criminal network. In 2014, he was given a 20 year prison sentence. With “Big Mouth” behind bars, he is probably proud of the legacy he left behind, known as the first to take Somalian piracy to an industrial scale. While earlier pirates “taxed” foreign vessels illegally fishing in Somalian waters, Hassan knew how to think big. “Hassan transformed Somali piracy from a cottage industry to a commercial enterprise. He elevated (or reintroduced) piracy to the 21st century global security agenda and in doing so, sowed the seeds of its downfall,” James Bridger told SOFREP.
Although his actions were illegal, you can’t deny that he had an impressive run as Somalia’s first pirate kingpin.
(Featured image courtesy of lavenircdn.net)