Former Minnesotan arrested on suspicion of assisting pirate ringleader

Mohamed Aden
Mohamed Aden, pictured at his Burnsville townhouse in March 2010.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The inspiring story of a former Burnsville, Minn., man who helped stabilize an area in his native Somalia has taken a detour after Belgian authorities arrested him this month on suspicion of assisting a pirate ringleader.

The U.S. State Department is providing consular assistance to Mohamed Aden, a naturalized U.S. citizen, a department official told MPR News. The official declined to say more about Aden's case, citing privacy rules.

Friends and fellow community members in Minnesota, home to the nation's largest Somali-American population, were taken aback by the Oct. 12 arrest. More than 400 people have "liked" a recently launched Facebook page called "Free Tiiceey," a nickname by which Aden is better known.

"People in Somalia, people in Minneapolis, and people all over the world who knew Tiiceey as a leader are incredibly shocked," said Abdi Aynte, a close friend who directs the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Mogadishu, Somalia-based think tank.

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Aden and suspected pirate gang boss Mohamed Abdi Hassan will appear Oct. 30 for a pre-trial hearing in Belgium on charges tied to the 2009 hijacking of the Belgian ship "Pompei." The court will determine then whether the men can be released awaiting further investigation and trial, a spokesperson for Belgium's federal prosecutor's office said.

Aden and Hassan are being held at a Belgian prison in Bruges. MPR News could not reach Aden's lawyer.

Before news of his arrest, Aden's path encouraged young Somali-Americans, including Aynte, to help their homeland at a time when it needed them most.

Aden, now 39, left his family and a comfortable suburban life five years ago to help rebuild a small corner of Somalia known for its piracy and violence. Using some of the knowledge acquired from a master's degree in public administration he received from Minnesota State University-Mankato, he helped restore order while serving as regional governor of the remote Himan and Heeb state.

Aden adapted to his new environment, at times collecting taxes in the form of goats rather than cash. His positive contributions in Somalia led to stories in the New York Times and MPR News. A State Department official at the time praised his efforts.

Aden did not seek another term as regional governor and instead helped oversee an election this year that brought into power his successor, Aynte said.

"He was widely praised for returning and creating a modicum of stability, and most importantly, for making this regional state an oasis in the middle of a hot spot in central Somalia," Aynte said.

Aden recently moved his family from Burnsville to Nairobi, Kenya, where he planned to start a business, friends said.

But during his term as governor, Aden became "chummy with some of Somalia's more notorious pirates," the New York Times Magazine reported in a separate article two years ago. They included Mohamed Abdi Hassan, who goes by the nickname "Afweyne," or Big Mouth.

Both Hassan and Aden were nabbed less than two weeks ago in an unusual sting operation by Belgian authorities. Determined to lure Hassan onto Belgian soil, undercover police approached Aden about a proposal to hire Hassan as a consultant on a documentary film about maritime piracy.

They used Aden, whom Belgian authorities describe as Hassan's accomplice, as a go-between. Both men arrived in Belgium Oct. 12, assuming they would sign a contract for the film, and were arrested.

Although Hassan was infamous for his alleged involvement with hijacking ships — he even announced in January that he was resigning from piracy and encouraged other pirates to do so — it's not yet clear why Belgian authorities suspect Aden of supporting Hassan.

Aden's arrest seems even more shocking given that he was widely credited for helping broker a deal that freed British hostages Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were held captive by Somali pirates for more than a year.

Aden told MPR News in 2010 that he helped raise ransom money from the Somali diaspora that led to the couple's release.

But in their book, "Hostage: A Year at Gunpoint with Somali Pirates," the Chandlers wrote that they weren't certain who paid what to ensure their freedom.