Belgium has arrested the suspected leader of a Somali pirate group after luring him to Brussels with promises to make a documentary about his money-making life on the high seas.
Mohamed Abdi Hassan, known as “Afweyne” or Big Mouth, was detained when he arrived at Brussels airport on Saturday with another suspect identified as Mohamed MA or “Tiiceey”, federal prosecutor Johan Delmulle revealed yesterday.
Tiiceey is a former governor of the Somali region of Himan and Heeb and is suspected in aiding Afweyne’s pirate organisation, Mr Delmulle told a news conference.
Prosecutors said they decided to involve Belgian undercover agents after it became clear that an international arrest warrant would not be successful in capturing the men.
“After patiently starting a relationship of trust with Tiiceey, and through him with Afweyne, which took several months, both were prepared to participate in this (film) project,” Mr Delmulle said.
The plan was put into action after two pirates were arrested and sentenced for the hijacking of the Belgian ship Pompei and its crew of nine in 2009, which was seized and held by pirates off the Somali coast for more than 70 days.
Prosecutors decided to try to target the people behind the seizure, rather than those who actually boarded the ship, and so set up the sting operation.
“All too often those persons stay out of the frame and let others carry out their dirty business,” Mr Delmulle added.
The prosecutor said Afweyne was asked via Tiiceey whether he would be prepared to be an adviser on a film about piracy, portraying his life carrying out hijackings off the East African coast and making millions of pounds from ransom payments.
Prosecutors said it took months to reel in Afweyne and persuade him to come to Brussels, but would not provide further details about how the sting was played out.
Afweyne said in January he had put his pirate days behind him and had retired.
“From today on I will not be involved in this gang activity,” he told a news conference in central Somalia. “I have also been encouraging many of my colleagues to renounce piracy too, and they have done it.”
United Nations experts have accused a former Somalian president of shielding Afweyne by issuing him with a diplomatic passport. It is thought the pirate also harboured political ambitions himself.
Afweyne was described in a leaked UN report last year as “one of the most notorious and influential leaders” of the pirate network in Hobyo and Haradhere, two remote pirate towns along Somalia’s vast east coast.
His first big seizure is believed to have been the 2008 capture of the Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned supertanker that had a crew including two Britons. It was eventually released for a £2 million ransom.
Afweyne’s men received a similar ransom for the Ukrainian ship MV Faina, which was carrying Russian-made tanks and weapons.
He could now go to prison for up to 15 years for piracy and for 30 years for hostage taking. Hassan and his accomplice will also be charged with membership of a criminal organisation.