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Talking to Somalia's "Most Notorious Pirate"

If you read about Somali piracy for any length of time, one name is bound to come up: Mohammed Abdi “Big Mouth” Hassan. Except he just got busted. I spoke with him a couple of months ago and decided this might be the time to dig it out.
October 16, 2013, 1:00pm

Mohammed Abdi "Big Mouth" Hassan, alleged pirate chief. 

If you read about Somali piracy for any length of time, one name is bound to come up: Mohammed Abdi “Big Mouth” Hassan. Except he just got busted. I spoke with him a couple of months ago and decided this might be the time to dig it out.

Hassan, or “Afweyne” as he was previously known, famously hijacked the biggest vessel in history, a $100 million Saudi-owned supertanker, which he recieved $3 million to return. A "founding father” of modern buccaneering off the Horn of Africa, Hassan made the headlines back in January, when he held a press conference to announce his “retirement” from the game. Despite this, an INTERPOL Red Notice issued in his name in 2012 stuck, and a couple of days ago his pirate reign came to an official end.

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Sneaky Belgian cops who were probably a bit sore over the hijacking of their compatriots’ ship back in 2009, lured Hassan to Brussels on the premise of working on a fake documentary about piracy. Despite grasping a Somali diplomatic passport (“not worth the paper it’s written on,” the UK Foreign Office told me), Big Mouth was charged with hijacking and “participating in a criminal organisation” shortly after his arrest. Once “one of Somalia’s most notorious and influential pirate leaders,” Big Mouth is now suffering the indignity of a Belgian cop shop—tricked, embarrassingly, by the lure of the limelight.

When I spoke to Big Mouth earlier this year, it wasn't long after he claimed to have given up the game. We chatted ransoms, hostages, and putting me on his list of people to “deal with.”

VICE: Hey Big Mouth, how did you and your friends get into piracy?
Big Mouth: We weren’t pirates; I was protecting Somalia’s natural resources.

I’m pretty sure you were leader of the largest pirate network in Somalia.
No. I was not involved in piracy. I’m a professional who worked in the fishing industry. We had to live off the sea. When the central government in Somalia collapsed, everything became lawless and we faced mass illegal fishing in our waters. Since there is no law and order the community and fishermen decided to protect their shores. We were successful in this, so I went back to my business.

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Right.
Shortly after, corruption started within the same group who were protecting the sea. A new system of protection was implemented and many things we weren’t satisfied with occurred. Considering that the area in which all this is happening is my town, and people started to get troubled by this illegal system of offshore protection, we had to reconsider everything and we started working with the government to bring this to an end. This is how things started, and I was not a pirate or part of this network.

That’s not what the UN says.
That is a rumor, which was started about me after things went wrong. I’m very disappointed with how things turned out. I’m not a person who kidnaps others. I’m a well-known man, with name and repetition in the middle regions of Somalia.

I’ve heard you’re doing anti-piracy work now.
I started this work almost a year and a half ago. When the situation started to worsen, and external individuals started to get involved seeking their personal interests, the TFG government [set up by the UN, US, and others as a temporary government to unite Somalia's warring clans] started to get involved and decided to do something about this issue. This is when the government nominated me to be part of a committee working with them to bring solutions forward. I studied the government proposal and thought of ways to tackle this issue. The collaboration worked, and we were successful in taking a lot of young people out of this piracy network.

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Do you have much money left from your pirate days?
No. I have never, even for once, thought of getting money from piracy. I’m not a man in need of money either. I’m a man who has his own business, and money, who is known in Somalia through my extended business across the country. The work I have done was not during the period piracy was at its peak in terms of corruption and ransom requests. All the things you're mentioning are on various websites, but there is no truth to them. Those who write such things about me are people who are against my ideas, work, and business. They want to make the world against me. And I will deal with them one day, God willing.

The British Foreign & Commonwealth's take on "Afweyne". 

What do pirates spend their money on?
Pirates make nothing out of this job. They do not receive the large sums you hear about, they only have the name of being pirates. They are being used as external figures own this whole network. When the pirates receive this small money, they can't live on it for longer than one month. Everyone knows that in Somalia.

So who are these shadowy “external figures”?
They are both Somalis and non-Somalis. They are the ones who encourage more men to become pirates and tell them of opportunities to receive a lot of money. These pirates would have not continued in this business if these men were not encouraging them.

How do those pirates do their job and choose a target? 
It is not of my concern to know their techniques. Anyway, their techniques show a level of experience but they lack technological support.

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Do you pay taxes to al-Shabaab?
No, no. Absolutely not. It’s not something we know about.

OK, so there’s still a bunch of hostages being held in Somalia, like Michael Moore, the American journalist. Can you at least help get them out?
We are very saddened and disappointed by anyone who had lost his freedom. The particular case you’ve mentioned is one we are working to support. We are only able to help and support cases that are within our political reach, when someone is held hostage we aim to support. We can’t promise anything more than that. Somalia is a large country and we don’t know where they are being held.

How would you describe yourself?
I’m a man of reputation, influence, and with leading qualities. I have the courage to deal with sensitive issues and this is why I was chosen.

So not a "main Somalian pirate" then?
Write that, and you’ll join the list of those who I will deal with in the future. Put that in mind.

Oh great. What’s your vision of Somalia’s future?
To have the golden days back where law and order was the norm. I see the future being much better.

Thanks very much.

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty

More on Somalian pirates:

Inside Somalia's Pirate Rehab

Firing Grenades at Somali Pirates Was the Best Fun I Ever Had

Fishing Without Nets with Pirates in Somalia