Eleven alleged Somali pirates indicted in US federal court

The alleged Somali pirates face charges of piracy and plunder, charges not typically heard – at least since the 18th century. What they thought were commercial vessels were actually US Navy warships. That was a big mistake.

Steve Helber/AP
One of 11 suspected Somali pirates is escorted into federal court by U.S. Marshall's in Norfolk, Va., Friday. The 11 are to stand trial in alleged attacks on U.S. naval vessels off the coast of Africa.

Eleven suspected Somali pirates have been indicted in Norfolk, Virginia, on charges of attempting in the dark of night on the high seas off Somalia to attack and plunder what they believed were defenseless cargo ships.

They were mistaken. Instead of cargo ships, the vessels they attacked turned out to be two US Navy warships.

At this early stage in the two cases, one huge mystery looms: How these alleged pirates lived to tell the tale.

According to the indictments, one attack took place March 31 against the USS Nicholas, a frigate. The second attack took place on April 10 against the USS Ashland, a dock landing ship.

In both cases, the pirates were armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. In contrast, US naval warships are equipped with a full array of modern weapon systems.

The indictments use language that doesn’t appear often in federal charging documents – at least not since the 1700s or thereabouts.

The charges: Piracy and attacking to plunder a vessel. One of the indictments says that five of the Somalis “by surprise and open force, maliciously attacked and set upon a vessel belonging to another, specifically, the USS Nicholas belonging to the United States of America, with intent unlawfully to plunder the same, and to despoil any owner thereof of any money, goods, and merchandise laden on board.”

The indictment explains: “The primary purpose of the conspiracy was to make money by means of piracy on the high seas.”

According to the indictment, one group of five suspected pirates left Somalia in an ocean-going vessel with two small boats in tow. The alleged pirates used the ship as a support platform for provisions and long-range transportation while in search of merchant ships to attack, according to the indictment.

On the night of March 31, the alleged pirates spotted a ship on the horizon. Three of them, armed with assault rifles and an RPG approached the ship and opened fire.

That’s when they discovered their mistake.

The second attack, against the Ashland, took place ten nights later. Six suspected pirates are charged in that attack.

In addition to piracy and attacking to plunder, the defendants are charged with various firearms offenses, including use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Piracy carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

“Since the earliest days of this country, piracy has been a serious crime,” said US Attorney Neil MacBride. “Piracy threatens human lives and disrupts international commerce. When pirates attack US vessels by force, they must face severe consequences.”

The two indictments were returned on Tuesday and Wednesday, but were kept under seal until the defendants could be transported to the US and transferred to the custody of the federal criminal justice system.

The charged pirates in the Nicholas attack are identified as Mohammed Modin Hasan, Gabul Abdullah Ali, Abdi Wali Dire, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, and Abdi Mohammed Umar.

The six charged pirates in the Ashland attack are identified as Maxamad Cali Saciid, Mohammed Abdi Jamah, Jaamac Ciidle, Abdicasiis Cabaase, Abdirasaq Abshir, and Mahamed Farraah Hassan.

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