NORFOLK, Va. — A Somali man accused of acting as chief negotiator for pirates who took four Americans hostage, including a pair of St. Monica parishioners, and killed them in February is the highest-ranking pirate the U.S. has captured in its efforts to help crack down on a rash of hijackings off Africa, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Mohammad Saaili Shibin, 50, was ordered by a federal judge to remain jailed until his trial. He faces piracy, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and firearms charges in an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Thirteen Somalis and a man from Yemen pleaded not guilty last month to the same charges in the case. The trial for those men is scheduled for Nov. 29. Shibin’s arraignment is April 27.
Prosecutors acknowledge Shibin never boarded the yacht Quest and say he was higher up in leadership chain than the other men, who are about half his age.
Instead, Shibin is accused of operating as a land-based negotiator. He was apprehended by the FBI and the military in Somalia last week and brought to the U.S. on Friday.
U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride called Shibin’s arrest a breakthrough because he’s the first pirate boss the U.S. has captured onshore in Somalia. The other 14 men accused in the case were captured at sea.
“We’re prosecuting not simply the pirates who go to sea and take hostages, but a pirate negotiator that is responsible for developing the ransoms,” he said. “It’s our hope that this will send a message that whether you’re at sea or whether you’re on land in Somalia that the FBI will find you and bring you to justice.”
The indictment says Shibin was the one who researched the four Americans on the Internet to determine how much of a ransom to seek and to identify family members they should contact.
The owners of the Quest — Jean and Scott Adam who were parishioners of St. Monica — were shot to death along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle after they were taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
Pirates have increased attacks off Africa’s eastern coast despite an international flotilla of warships dedicated to stopping the pirate assaults.
U.S. naval forces were tracking the Americans’ captured yacht with unmanned aerial vehicles and four warships, and negotiations were under way when the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade.
Special forces boarded the vessel and found the Americans had been shot, according to the military. Pirates have blamed the deaths of the American hostages on the U.S. Navy, saying the pirates felt under attack.
It was the first time U.S. citizens have been killed in the pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years. The pirates are typically motivated by the potential for millions of dollars in ransom money.
The Adams, who were retired, had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht and delivering Bibles around the world. The indictment accuses at least three of the indicted men of shooting and killing the four Americans without provocation.