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.

Denolf, Dutch Special Forces Group commander
Denolf, the Belgian 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.