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.

Our Lesser Evil

Reviled by some for supporting the Iraq War, Michael Ignatieff (who now teaches at the University of Toronto) wrote an often overlooked book during the mid-oughts, called The Lesser Evil. Tackling an ambitious question –how can a state address the threat of terrorism– the book outlines the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of asymmetric (and illegal) wars.

Ignatieff argues that democracies are liable to tear themselves apart by destroying their own systems of justice, curtailing their prized liberties, eroding their support for transparency, and morphing questions of criminality into forever wars against ideology –all in an effort to fight the ghostly others. Long story short, in responding to terrorists eager to harm their country, democratic leaders begin to do the terrorist’s work themselves.

This week, The Atlantic published the latest “recap” on some of the liberties the United States has lost in the fight against Al Qaeda (or other enemies unknown). While few will be shocked by the claims made, or the nefarious future that appears ever-closer, Ignatieff’s initial book is notable for its prescience, even if the man wasn’t with respect to Iraq. Today, The Lesser Evil might be worth a second (or first) look.