In 2015 Newsweek assigned me to track down billionaire Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater Security Erik Prince in South Sudan.
Personnel from his new logistics company Frontier Services Group were rumored to have been arming both sides of the conflict in the nascent war-torn country.
I didn’t find Prince himself but signs of FSG in Juba, and near the oil fields in the Upper Nile state, were aplenty.
More on that later.
In September, I passed through UAE and found Erik Prince’s “Blackwater” (note logo) catamaran docked in front of his two villas in a gated enclave in Abu Dhabi. A local realtor said they were valued at $5 million – and one was for sale.
A U.S. Navy SEALs unit, of the same special category that killed Osama bin Laden, has rescued an American and a Dane from pirates who captured them three months ago in Somalia. The Danish Refugee Council said the two were flown to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where doctors said they are in reasonably good health. The American remains in hospital for observation, but both plan to reunite soon with their families.
In a pre-dawn raid on Wednesday the 25th (early evening Tuesday, U.S. East Coast time), members of the highly-elite SEAL Team Six parachuted into an area near the pirates’ inland nest far from the coastal region around the town of Galkayo—a disputed, outlaw stronghold that’s earned the name “kidnap central.” Jessica Buchanan, 32, a former fourth grade teacher from Virginia, and Poul Thisted, 60, of Denmark, both employees of the Danish Demining Group (DDG), were abducted there in October. Pirates holding the pair had demanded a ransom of $10 million.
A Djibouti-based U.S. anti-terrorist unit, Joint Special Operations Command Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) launched the raid from Galkayo’s airport, near where the aid workers had been abducted. CJTF-HOA includes forces from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.
According to Somalia Report, a Nairobi-based online news service, 11 to 12 aircraft arrived at that airport right about midnight Tuesday, local time. U.S. Special Operations forces secured the airport, with plans to launch the raid between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. local time. Residents near the site of the attack reported that around 3:30 a.m, U.S. helicopters began engaging the pirates in a gun battle.
U.S. commandos captured six pirates and killed nine others, among them a pirate called Osman Alcohol, though a leading pirate commander was not counted among the dead or captured. No U.S. casualties have been reported.
Circumstances leading to the raid and rescue remain in debate. Danish government officials told Somalia Report that the timing had to do with an illness Ms. Buchanan was suffering, which doctors said they had to treat. Other sources suggest the raid was planned when the pirates moved the hostages and presented an opportunity.
Local sources told Somalia Report that the pirates initially moved the hostages offshore to a ship, the MV Albedo—a Malaysian tanker another group of pirates had seized. The vessel was already holding the two female Spanish aid workers with Medicin Sans Frontiers who Al Shabab reportedly had admitted to kidnapping from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, in November, 2011, and sold on to pirates. In addition, the pirates held hostage the ship’s crew of 23.
The reason for moving the hostages, Somalia Report said, was the pirates’ fear of airstrikes by the Kenya Defense Force. They were wary of crossfire in the ongoing war between democratic and predominantly Christian Kenya and Al Shabab, sparked by cross-border kidnappings late last year.
Obama has confirmed that he personally authorized the Galkayo mission.
Venetia Archer, an Australian formerly with the maritime intelligence division at the British Aegis Defense Services, suggests other motives: That the pirates wanted to put the abductees in a confined area, like a ship, to make it easier to secure them, and hold the DDG workers—plus the two Spanish refugee aid workers and the ship’s crew—for possible use as a human shield, in the event of a U.S. forces operation. Whatever the reason for the move to the ship, the situation changed fast. The hostages had been onboard for over a week when the abductors moved them back to land—to Iidoole village, about 19 miles from the Cacaado region.
Over the course of several days, residents ashore watched the shuttling of the two DDG hostages from the Albedo, and had relayed the information to U.S. military forces in Djibouti.
A spokesman for the autonomous region of Himaam, where Cadaado is located, welcomed the rescue operation. “We are very happy about this incident, because the pirates are the ones causing the insecurity in our region,” Mohamed Omar told Somalia Report.
Since maritime security has improved in commercial shipping lanes, pirates have begun shifting their focus to land abductions, and focusing on aid workers. Foreigners have been yielding big ransoms, making Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world for international aid workers.
Today, according to Eco-Terra, a maritime monitoring group, 44 vessels and 418 crew remain in hands of sea pirates. Judith Tebbutt, the British tourist kidnapped in neighboring Kenya last fall, is still on land in Harardhere, a pirate’s nest north of Mogadishu.
After the painful memories of Black Hawk Down in 1993 and the Quest yacht disaster in 2010, when pirates, on seeing the U.S. Navy bearing down on them, shot all four American citizens on board, any land intervention seemed out of question. But this successful raid and rescue could be a harbinger of a change.
In his State of the Union message Tuesday, President Obama praised Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, telling him, “Good job tonight.” Obama has since confirmed that he personally authorized the Galkayo mission. Its success, he said, sent another message to the world “that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people.”
Just last Saturday, pirates operating near Galkayo grabbed a young American writer, who recently had arrived in Somalia to do research for a book—about piracy—on the very road pirates had snatched Buchanan and Thisted. Piracy experts fear that he may not be as lucky as the aid workers: The same clan that seized Moore also had captured DDG hostages, and experts fear they make seek revenge.
Author’s note: A U.S. official has stated that no Somalis had been captured in the course of the raid and rescue.
Margot Kiser is a Kenya-based American correspondent covering piracy, geopolitics, and wildlife conservation in East Africa. She is currently at work on a memoir of her life as a safari wife in post-socialist Tanzania, where she established a wildlife-conservation area at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.