Belgium’s Remarkable Capture of Pirate Ringleader

Belgium has captured a senior Somali pirate kingpin in a remarkable operation. The leader of a pirate group, he had long been sought for hijacking a Belgian vessel in 2009. Now, undercover agents lured him and an associate to the Low Countries by pretending to be documentary film makers interested in making a movie about him.

The remarkable affair highlights some points about universal jurisdiction and pirate kingpins.

Belgium’s commendable efforts to catch those involved contrast highlights a big difference between universal and traditional jurisdiction: the bad guys have to be caught before being brought to justice, and no one wants to invest much effort in other people’s – or the “global community’s” bad guys.

Though there is a lot of talk about pirate kingpins, they almost never face prosecution, because catching them would generally require getting on the ground in Somalia. Indeed, this seems to be the biggest – and only – pirate boss yet captured.
The U.S. has caught and convicted one real pirate leader, responsible for a murderous attack on a U.S. yacht; he was apparently nabbed in Somalia by federal agents.

The Belgian case poses a fascinating contrast to a U.S. gambit to catch a pirate kingpin. Ali Mohamend Ali, whose case I’ve written about, was arrested while attending an education conference in North Carolina – he was an education ministry official (not a staged conference, a real one). But Ali wasn’t really a pirate, let alone a kingpin, just someone paid to negotiate the ransom. Two years after his arrest, his trial will begin in the D.C. Federal District Court, appropriately enough on Halloween, when lots of people get dressed up as pirates.

Ali himself is the subject of a documentary (in which I also appear) made before his legal troubles began; in the film, he clearly has no idea that he has put himself on America’s wanted list.

Memo to Somali pirates: If someone says they want to do a documentary about you, but film it in Belgium, beware.

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