As the Somali piracy blockbuster Captain Phillips raked in $26 million in its opening weekend on U.S. screens, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known as "Afweyne," was on a flight to Belgium with gainful plans to sell a very different story about East African marauders. Expecting to consult on a movie based on his life as a seafaring bandit, Afweyne and his associate were instead arrested by Belgian police and charged with the crimes of piracy and hostage taking. The two men had fallen for a hard-to-believe, reverse-Argo ruse -- a months-long sting operation set in motion to catch the mastermind behind the 2009 hijacking and ransom of the Belgian-owned dredging vessel Pompei. … Though his hopes of being immortalized on the big screen have been dashed, Afweyne, more than any other pirate, is responsible for making Somali piracy into an organized, multi-million-dollar industry. … Beginning in 2003, the former civil servant was plying investors with a self-described "very good business idea" and headhunting veteran pirates from Puntland to train his own "Somali Marines." The result was the birth of modern Somali piracy: organized bands of skiffs and supporting motherships hunting hundreds of miles from shore for commercial vessels that would deliver multi-million-dollar ransoms.
The Albedo was weighed down with cargo, leaving its main deck close to the water. The pirates retrieved a long ladder with hooks on one end, hung it over the deck wall, and climbed it easily, without any shocks from the electric wire. (It may have malfunctioned, or the assailants may have been lucky and missed it.) The first pirate to reach the barbed wire pulled back for a moment, then charged through it, the metal cutting into his flesh. “I did not imagine people like these living in this world,” Kumar said. ... “We want only company money,” he said. “If company pay money, no problem.” He ordered the seamen to collect everything valuable from their cabins—cell phones, cash, cameras—and pile it on the bridge. “Crew problem, Somalia problem,” he said. “Crew no problem, Somalia no problem.” ... After the Albedo anchored near Somalia, most of the hijackers left the ship. They were replaced by about a dozen armed guards, two cooks, and a large man with a hoarse voice, who introduced himself as the new boss. Jabin, who had stayed on board, would be his head guard. The crewmen were assured that they would be home within weeks. “You are our guests,” the boss said. “We are only interested in money.” ... For weeks, Kumar refused to believe that Rajbhar, his closest friend on the ship, was gone. He considered jumping off the deck and drowning himself. Aliabadi looked after him, taking on his duties and making sure that he was eating. Eventually, Kumar decided that, if he and his crewmates were to survive, “we would have to fight.” They couldn’t force their way off the ship, but perhaps they could reason their way off, even if their captors were unreasonable. He resolved to learn everything he could about Jabin and the other hijackers. ... Soon, they were describing the mechanics of the Albedo operation. Hijackings were complex financial enterprises, they explained, with committees of investors, accountants, even classes of shares.
Barely seven hours had passed since the gunmen had taken the ship. But already an international cast was activating: salvors from the region’s cutthroat ports, to scavenge millions from the wreckage; U.S. military investigators, to determine if Somali pirates had adopted brutal new tactics; and most urgently of all, an operative from the stony world of London insurance, to discover what really happened aboard his clients’ $100 million liability. Because if the hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso wasn’t a case of fumbled piracy, it would be the most spectacular fraud in shipping history. ... The events of July 6, 2011, set in motion a tangle of lawsuits and criminal investigations that are still nowhere near conclusion. Six years after it was abandoned, the Brillante Virtuoso is an epithet among shipping veterans, one that reveals their industry’s capacity for lawlessness, financial complexity, and violence. This account is based on court evidence, private and government records, and more than 60 interviews with people involved, almost all of whom asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivities of nine-figure litigation and, in some cases, concern for their own safety. Everyone at sea that night survived. But the danger was just getting started.