The plight of a pirate negotiator

The story of Ali Mohamed Ali, the pirate negotiator, illustrates the complex interaction between politics and the justice system —and how the desire to help can cost an individual everything.

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.

A Tunnel…And then Light.

To report with meaning, you need support. How much is journalism worth to you?

When I was completing my last degree at Columbia, I was fortunate to spend precious class time with one of the school’s most decorated (and hard-assed) professors. While discussing what it would take to make it in this business, he offered a simple conclusion: “You just have to feel like you couldn’t do anything else.” Because I can’t…

I’m excited to announce I’ve joined Beacon, a new service for freelancers like myself to gain added traction on the “tear-you-down-I’ll-give-you-a-penny-per-word” internet. Beacon was launched this year to connect readers with their favorite (and new) writers. The beauty of the service is that, even if you just want to read my work (#flattering), you’ll gain access to a wide stable of journalists on the front lines worldwide. I said yes to Beacon, because we all need to find some way to financially support reporters who devote their time and energy to keep this industry alive.

On Beacon, I’ve attempted to narrow my focus, and will be reporting/writing/opining and complaining about security issues in West and Central Africa. The end goal: to justify the time and energy needed for a large, non-fiction project —that secret is still mine.

So how do you help? Through my profile page, you will be able to subscribe ($5/month) to me directly. That contribution will provide the much needed income so I can keep doing what I’m doing. For you, it will open up the world of Beacon —a pastiche of national and international reporting presented aesthetically for you each and every day.

On Beacon, I’ll be posting regularly, whether real-time updates from the field, articles (featuring original and compiled reporting) or comments on current events (as they relate to the broader topic). Over time, the goal is to create a persuasive and compelling account of an international security space that is still largely misunderstood.

The first post on Beacon will tackle the issue of piracy (A topic I’ve written about in the past). As security topics go, piracy can be exceedingly nebulous, the recent Hollywood release of Captain Phillips, a film that dramatizes the real-life kidnapping of an American captain off the Somali coast in 2009, has brought the topic back into (temporary) vogue. The movie, which fails to tackle the myriad actors that effect, or are affected by, piracy or the context in which it persists. One benefit of greater awareness, however, might be a slight bump in interest, and a desire for new and balanced coverage. My first post on Beacon is a short brief of what the movie missed, and what reporters (like myself) might add.

My decision to cover West and Central Africa, and for a service like Beacon, is certainly strategic. I believe that any discussion of this region, specifically in so far as it relates to security, speaks to a growing concern among scholars, policymakers and anyone curious about the future of American foreign policy. If I had to wager, something I often avoid, I would risk a considerable sum on the claim that sub-saharan Africa —both its land and territorial waters— will be the landscape for “future wars” against organized crime and terrorism, and as a region of concern for lingering conflicts. The fact that the United States will play a leading role in this space whether it wants to, is capable of if, or likely to benefit from it, is incontrovertible.

So for those eager to see “what’s next” before that future arrives, I invite you to join me on the new platform. If you know someone who is interested in this space, might be interested in this topic, and wants to support the type of journalism that fuels many of us to keep working for little pay, I would appreciate your help in sharing the page:

If those people need further prodding, send them back here —which I’ll be updating regularly— to pique their interest.

Finally. For those who took the time to read, and who might now take a moment to contribute, I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I simply can’t do this.