Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil

As many of you might know, I recently launched a new editorial project with the help of Beacon. “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” is an investigative project that will take me to Nigeria and Cameroon this spring reporting on three issues I believe are both critical and importantly inter-related in the region.

The support I’ve received over the last six days has been incredible —not to mention humbling. In my project pitch I stressed that these types of projects cannot be completed alone, and that (freelance) international reporting is perhaps the hardest gig in the journalism world right now. The many kind donations and messages of support demonstrate that there is still an interested readership for some of today’s most complicated and compelling stories.

Unlike Kickstarter, which fixes a numerical goal for crowdsourced projects, Beacon focuses on the number of “Backers”. For a project to secure funding, 50 “Backers” have to pledge their support before the project deadline. To date, I’ve been honored to accept pledges from 20 different sources, but remain eager to add to this tally with just 13 days remaining.

For those who haven’t visited the project page, please do so here. For the cost of two coffees (in NYC, of course) you can add your name to the list. For those who might know friends and family members interested in these topics, feel free to pass the information along. And finally, check back here for updates as the project progresses.

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The plight of a pirate negotiator

This week I tackled the plight of Ali Mohamed Ali, the one-time pirate negotiator arrested in a FBI sting operation in 2011. While the piece, published on Beacon, is largely a response to Politico’s tragicomedy of a story on the consequences of prosecuting international criminals on American soil, the story of “Mr. Ali” is compelling in its own right.

The former Director-General of Education in Somaliland, Mr. Ali spent nearly 25 years of his life in the United States —time that furnished him with fluent English and a better understanding of Western culture, he said. Below, an excerpt from the article explains how Mr. Ali was caught in the 2008 crisis surrounding the hijacking of Danish vessel, CEC Future, off the Somali coast:

Mr. Ali’s own recruitment by the pirates —one of chance given his role in negotiating the release of a German couple held at sea— was fueled by compassion for anyone held by the pirates he described as a “crazed bunch … surly and unpredictable.”

After speaking at length with Mr. Ali’s lawyer, Matthew J. Peed, what became clear was not merely the aggressive prosecutorial stance (“the accused was the victim of “overzealous prosecutors” in an “apparent turf battle” driven to pounce as “FBI investigators, eager for a high-profile arrest, lured Mr. Ali to the U.S.”, Mr. Peed wrote) but also what these actions had cost Mr. Ali, summed up deftly by a statement from his lawyer below:

Despite spending untold millions of taxpayer dollars in this cynical pursuit, the government was unable to convict Mr. Ali of any wrongdoing.  Its thin case relied on conjecture regarding Mr. Ali’s intent that contradicted both his long history of fighting piracy and the testimony of several hostages, who stated that Mr. Ali protected and comforted them during their harrowing ordeal.  Nevertheless, the government managed to inflict a substantial punishment on an innocent man in the form of nearly three years of pretrial detention—an unconscionable result in a country devoted to the rule of law.

Today, Mr. Ali awaits a Department of Immigration determination of his political asylum claim. And this is the unfortunate catch-22: While his connections to pirate gangs in Somalia gave him the standing to negotiate, his disclosures (of names and operational details) to the United States government mean it is no longer safe for him to return to his native Somalia. Where much is taken, something is owed. Only time will tell if Mr. Ali is rewarded for his sacrifice.