US seizes man in Somalia, says he was pirates' negotiator in fatal hijacking

US hails the suspect's arrest as a 'significant breakthrough' in the fight against Somali pirates. He is alleged to have been the shore-based negotiator in the fatal hijacking of the yacht 'Quest.'

L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian-Pilot/AP
Mohammad Saaili Shibin, a Somali man accused of acting as chief negotiator for pirates who took four Americans hostage and killed them in February, is transported from the US District Court, in Norfolk, Va. after a scheduled detention hearing.

Federal authorities have arrested and charged a Somali man who allegedly served as the negotiator in the fatal hijacking in February of four Americans sailing in the Arabian Sea.

The four were taken hostage aboard their yacht “Quest” and were killed before a ransom demand was made.

Mohammad Shibin, who was captured last week in Somalia by federal agents and the US military and brought to the US on Friday, is charged in a three-count indictment with being the alleged pirates’ shore-based negotiator responsible for arranging the return of the four American hostages.

Top 5 high-profile captures by Somali pirates

Calling Mr. Shibin “an alleged pirate in a leadership role,” the US on Wednesday hailed his arrest as a “significant breakthrough” in the battle against Somali pirates.

The indictment, made public on Wednesday, says Shibin researched the hostages on the Internet to determine the amount of ransom to demand and to identify family members he could contact with payment information.

The four Americans were sailing in the Arabian Sea when they were approached and boarded by 13 Somalis and a Yemeni. The men were armed with a rocket-propelled grenade and assault rifles.

The Americans, Scott Underwood Adam, Jean Savage Adam, Phyllis Patricia Macay, and Robert Campbell Riggle, issued a distress call.

The US Navy responded with the dispatch of the USS Sterett. The Navy and the pirates remained in a standoff for five days, with naval officers attempting to negotiate the safe release of the American sailors.

On the fifth day a pirate fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett. Later, at least three pirates opened fire and killed the American hostages.

The men eventually surrendered to the Navy and were transported to the US to face piracy charges. They have pleaded not guilty. The 14 are set to stand trial in federal court in Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 29.

Indictment was sealed

Shibin is named in his own indictment, which was returned in early March and ordered sealed to avoid tipping him off that US officials were after him.

According to court documents, Shibin told FBI agents after his capture that he acted as the lead negotiator in the hijacking of the German merchant ship Marida Marguerite.

The ship was captured in May 2010 and released in December. Shibin told the FBI he received $30,000 for his role in negotiating the ransom payment.

Shibin also told the FBI, according to court documents, that he was asked to serve as negotiator in the Quest hijacking. He said he declined.

US officials don’t believe him. According to the indictment, two days into the Quest standoff one of the alleged pirates told naval officers that “Shibin” was the person responsible for negotiating the release of the four sailors on the Quest.

The man said the ransom negotiations would take place when the hostages arrived in Somalia. Naval officers were attempting to negotiate the safe release of the American sailors at sea.

'Significant breakthrough'

“The arrest of Mohammad Shibin is a significant breakthrough in the United States’ battle against Somali pirates,” said US Attorney Neil MacBride.

“Today marks the first time that the US government has captured and charged an alleged pirate in a leadership role – a hostage negotiator who operated in Somalia,” he said in a statement. “We hope this indictment will strike at the heart of the piracy business and send a strong message to all pirates that they are not beyond the reach of the FBI, whether they board the ships or remain on-shore in Somalia.”

Shibin is named in a three-count indictment. He is accused of engaging in piracy, of conspiring to commit kidnapping, and of the use of a firearm during a crime of violence.

If convicted of the piracy charge he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. On the two other charges he faces possible sentences ranging from 30 years to life in prison.

Top 5 high-profile captures by Somali pirates

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