Belgium traps Somali pirate chief with lure of movie stardom
Suspected mastermind of Somali attacks lured to Belgium by police and was expecting to sign deal for film about his life when he was seized
The New York Times in Brussels
A suspected Somali pirate mastermind nicknamed "Big Mouth" was trapped in a Belgian police sting operation by the thought of seeing himself in a movie.
Mohamed Abdi Hassan was arrested as he got off a flight at Brussels airport expecting to sign a deal for a film about his swashbuckling past.
He was charged with kidnapping, organised crime and piracy. His alleged accomplice, Mohamed Aden, was also seized.
Johan Delmulle, a Belgian federal prosecutor, Hassan was "considered by the international community, notably the United Nations, as one of the most important pirate leaders, responsible for a dozen attacks".
UN investigators called him a "notorious and influential" pirate leader. Aden, who faced the same charges, was accused of having supported what is suspected to be Hassan's piracy operation.
In 2009, pirates attacked a Belgian ship called the Pompei 1,100km off the coast of Somalia.
They held the crew, including two Belgian officers and a Dutch captain, in what Delmulle described as "inhumane conditions, leaving their families in total uncertainty about their fate".
The ship and its crew were released after more than 70 days.
The Belgian state security service, military intelligence and the federal judicial police of Brussels searched for the men they believed were responsible, leading to the prosecution and sentencing of two pirates, he said.
One was sentenced to 10 years by a Brussels court in 2011 and the other to nine years by a court in Bruges last year.
The Belgian authorities, Delmulle said, "never hid their firm intention to not limit the investigation and prosecution to just those who executed this crime, but also to those behind it - the people who ordered, directed and financed and helped with logistic support."
Hassan - also known as Afweyne, which means "big mouth" - was believed to have helped finance the attack.
But as long as he stayed in Somalia, in what Delmulle called its "complicated judicial situation", he was beyond the reach of Belgian police and the international warrant for his arrest.
So the authorities began a sting operation lasting months to lure Hassan to Belgium. A magistrate authorised special units of the federal police to "work out an infiltration operation".
The agents worked through Aden. They said they wanted Hassan "to collaborate as adviser and expert in the matter on a film about maritime piracy", Delmulle said. "This film was to reflect his life as a pirate." After the police courted Hassan for months to work on the supposed film project, he and Aden agreed to travel to Belgium.
At 8am on Saturday, the morning after the new Tom Hanks film about Somali piracy, Captain Phillips, opened in cinemas in the US, the two men stepped off a flight from Nairobi and into the hands of the police.
The men were expected to appear in court in Bruges yesterday. "Too often," Delmulle said, "these people are beyond reach."
Hassan announced in Mogadishu in January that he was quitting piracy after a highly profitable eight-year career.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the arrests as a new breakthrough in the fight to stop piracy off the Somali coast.
"While fully respecting the principle of presumption of innocence, we consider that this arrest marks a significant step in the fight against piracy," said spokesman Sebastien Brabant.
"It demonstrates that law enforcement authorities can now track not only the pirates themselves, but also the leaders of these criminal networks."
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse