Court case reveals role of negotiators in Somali pirating

 

It had been more than a year since Capt. Mahedo Makane turned his tanker away from the Somali coast and headed out to sea and freedom. But when he took the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Norfolk, Va., earlier this year, the ordeal he and his crew had endured was vivid in the captain's mind: Makane described how his ship had been hijacked on a muggy May afternoon in 2010 and how the mariners suffered through 10 months of stifling confinement, death threats and torture.

The nightmare finally ended, the captain said, three days after Christmas. His company had parachuted in a $5 million ransom, and the pirates had divvied up their loot. As the final two pirates stepped from the deck of the Marida Marguerite, one turned to address the crew. He was Mohammad Shibin, a smooth-talking, English-speaking Somali who had acted as the pirates' negotiator with the German shipping company. He had also helped keep the crew in line, often brutally.

As Makane, a father of three in his 50s with thick black hair and large glasses, recounted that final meeting, he looked into the courtroom at the gray-haired Shibin, who was sitting pensively at the defense table.

"You will definitely not like me to see you again," the captain recalled Shibin saying as he left the tanker that December day. "If you see me, you will hate me."

The circumstances that brought an Indian ship captain, a Ukrainian engineer, German police officers and representatives of a German shipping company into a Virginia federal courtroom for the trial of the Somali negotiator are complicated, involving a second hijacking and centuries-old U.S. statutes on high-seas piracy.

But the case highlights what federal authorities say is the important and little-known role negotiators such as Shibin play in Somali piracy, which has received international attention in recent years. A U.N. Security Council report in July said that such piracy remains a "threat to global shipping" and a "humanitarian tragedy for hijacked seafarers and kidnapped hostages."

Although hijackings have declined in the past year or so because of stepped-up security precautions, attempted hijackings by Somali pirates are on the rise, international authorities say. This year, Somali pirates have successfully hijacked 13 ships and continue to hold more than 180 hostages.

Multilingual, computer-savvy negotiators such as Shibin make piracy profitable, said Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose attorneys prosecuted Shibin this year.

"But for guys like Shibin, there would be fewer hijackings," MacBride said. "The six guys who seize the ship and speak no English, they need a man like Shibin to monetize the ship, its crew and its cargo."

Shibin is not the only accused pirate negotiator in U.S. custody. Federal prosecutors are seeking to try Ali Mohamed Ali in the District's federal court on charges tied to the 2008 hijacking of a Danish ship.

Shibin was arrested last year by the FBI shortly after he participated in the hijacking of the Quest, a U.S. sailboat on which four Americans were slain by Somali pirates. The 50-year-old former teacher - who learned English at school in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, is a father of five and formerly worked as an oil company dispatcher - was convicted of piracy and hostage-taking on the Marida Marguerite and the Quest. He was sentenced in August to life in prison. His court-appointed attorney, James O. Broccoletti, who argued that Shibin was nothing more than a humanitarian intermediary, is appealing the verdict.

Shibin's trial, which included testimony from crew members of the Marida Marguerite, fellow pirates and federal agents, as well as the playing of tape recordings of his negotiations, provided a rare account of a negotiator's work and the gruesome day-by-day life aboard a pirated ship.

The hijacking of the Marida Marguerite began May 8, 2010, in the Gulf of Aden, as the 30,000-ton red-and-white-painted tanker carrying castor oil and a gasoline additive traversed "pirate alley," an area of water between Somalia and Yemen known for its high number of hijackings, on its way from India to Rotterdam.

That's when the crew noticed a blip on the ship's radar. It was approaching. Fast. It could only be one thing: pirates.

Crew mates assembled on the bridge and hoped that their precautions would be enough. The ship was wrapped in razor wire, and sailors were ready to grab fire hoses to jettison any pirates who managed to board.

An hour after the blip appeared, the ship's 43-year-old chief engineer, Oleg Dereglazov, turned to the stern and spotted a small skiff loaded with six men, all carrying rifles. The skiff, pounding through the waves at 20 knots, was gaining on the lumbering tanker. The pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade that arced over the Marida Marguerite, then another. If one of the rockets hit the vessel and its volatile cargo, Dereglazov later recalled, "there would be no ship nor pirates."

The ship slowed, and a sailor threw a ladder over its starboard side. The mariners watched as the six Somali pirates armed with AK-47s stepped onto the deck and headed straight for the bridge, where they ordered the captain to sail toward Somali waters. The captain refused. A pirate took off the captain's glasses and slapped him hard across the face, making the demand plain: Comply, Makane testified, or be "physically abused."

Two days later, the ship was anchored off the Somali coast, where 60 armed pirates boarded. One was Shibin, who picked up a satellite phone and contacted the representative of the shipping company in Germany.

"Hello. I'm calling from the Marida Marguerite," he said before putting the captain on the line. Makane told his bosses, "They are saying if their demands are not met, they will harass us and they will kill us."

Taking back the phone, Shibin added: "I myself am not a pirate. I work for a local NGO, a human rights NGO in this area. And I volunteered to do this job because I want to save their lives, and I don't want these animals to get rid of your crew, okay?"

But to the ship's crew, it appeared that Shibin was taking orders from the pirates' commanders.

Over the next few days, Shibin pressed Makane and other crew members about the value of the tanker, its cargo, its food and fuel supplies, and its ability to produce fresh water. He befriended the second officer, who provided valuable intelligence in exchange for privileges. Only then did Shibin make the pirates' initial demand.

"They are asking for $15 million," he told the company representative, subtly distancing himself from the pirates.

"Did you say $15 million?" asked an incredulous shipping company official.

As days turned to weeks, Shibin continued to speak periodically with the shipping company; the crew lived on the bridge. The pirates roamed the ship, sipped tea and looted whatever valuables they could find. They also chewed copious amounts of the stimulative plant khat. Shibin ate so much that his belly became as round as an ocean buoy, and he soon earned the nickname "Dracula" because he only seemed to appear at night, when he was enjoying khat with the pirates.

In July, another pirate skiff approached the tanker, and a pirate asked for fresh water. The Marida Marguerite had a fuel-hungry desalinization system that removed salt from seawater to make it safe for drinking. The captain, worrying that he would waste valuable fuel to make freshwater for pirates, refused the request.

"We have water which is enough for us, but we do not have water to give to other ships," he told the pirates.

"You have to obey them," Shibin said.

Incensed by the captain's intransigence, the pirates dragged him and Dereglazov, the chief engineer, to different sides of the ship, blindfolded them and started shooting guns into the air. The pirates then strung them to pipes and let them hang from their arms.

About a month later, Shibin instructed Makane to call his company to report that the ship was about to be handed over to a terrorist group. He allowed crew members to call their families - but only if they said they had "only 24 hours left to live." More pirates docked next to the tanker, and Shibin told the captain and chief engineer that they had to turn over more freshwater. Again, the captain refused.

With Shibin watching, the pirates dangled the chief engineer over the sea, as if he were going to be thrown overboard. They did the same to the captain. Then the pirates strapped a plastic bag over the captain's head so that Makane felt like he was suffocating. A pirate, wielding a big knife, said: "We are going to slaughter you. Now you better tell the truth [about] the freshwater."

By early September, with fuel running low, the pirates' tactics became more extreme. They stripped the captain naked, placed tight plastic ties around his genitals and locked him in a freezer.

When Makane pleaded for help, Shibin smiled and turned away.

By December, after scores of calls, Shibin and the German company had reached an agreement on a $5 million ransom. In the hopes of making a little extra cash for himself, Shibin forced the captain to get on the phone to praise his efforts as negotiator. "You have to understand that [Shibin] has done a lot for us," the captain said.

The next day, the captain managed to call his company after Shibin stepped away from the bridge. "Nothing else has to be done for him," he told his representative.

On a sunny day in late December, the pirates lined the crew members up on the deck of the ship as a small plane circled overhead, checking that they were alive. Then the plane dropped two containers filled with $5 million in cash. The hijacking of the Marida Marguerite was over.

But two months later, a small group of pirates seized the Quest, a sailboat with four Americans on board, only to be intercepted by U.S. Navy warships. When the Navy urged the pirates to release their hostages, the pirates refused but provided the cellphone number of their negotiator: Shibin.

Although the FBI determined that Shibin had researched the Quest and communicated with pirates about the hijacking, he never got the chance to play the intermediary. The pirates executed the four Americans when it became clear that the Navy was not going to allow them to slip into Somali waters. The killings sparked an intense FBI investigation; Shibin was arrested in a joint operation by the FBI and Somali security forces, turned over to federal agents and placed on a plane bound for America - and the courtroom where he would face the men he had promised would hate him.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick