The pirates who captured the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star have broken off negotiations with the ship's owners, apparently insisting they want to talk with a wealthy Virginia woman with close ties to the US military and intelligence communities.
Michele Lynn Ballarin, a figure only Washington could offer the world, runs a small Virginia-based company, SelectArmor, that designs and makes body armor and provides executive protection to wealthy individuals. She has a long history of involvement in Somalia, including allegations by a respected publication -- Africa Confidential -- that she was helping plan military operations there in 2006.
Military.com spoke with Ballarin for more than an hour Nov. 24 and she told us she has been in regular touch with the pirates by satellite phone -- the last contact was Monday at 5 p.m. Eastern Time -- and had just returned from Somalia Nov. 18.
Ballarin said she is not only negotiating with the pirates holding that Saudi tanker, she is also in touch with the MV Faina, the Ukrainian ship loaded with grenade launchers, ammunition and 33 Russian-made T-72 tanks.
"I'm in communication with both ships on a regular basis," she said.
The Faina's captain helped the pirates drop a sign over the ship's side with one word on it: Amira. Ballarin is known to the Somalis as Amira. The crew of the Sirius draped a similar sign over the side of their ship. But Ballarin's goal is even bigger than helping end the takeover of the two ships. She wants to negotiate an end to piracy off the Somali coast.
"My goal is to unwind all 17 ships and all 450 people they've been holding," she said.
Ballarin said the involvement of the Somali Islamist group, Al Shabab, had helped turn the tide in her favor by putting the fear of death into the young pirates. She claimed the Islamist group had captured, tortured and killed a young male relative of one of the pirates in the last few days. This came after Al Shabab announced it opposed the taking of ships owned by Muslims and promised to behead those who did.
Al Shabab "made it dead clear that any ransom that is collected they will take it; they will take away their money and kill them," Ballarin said.
That has concentrated the minds of the pirates, according to Ballarin.
"The most urgent requests I've had is they don't want to be offloaded in Somalia because they would be killed," she said, adding that negotiations are under way to find a country willing to take the pirates.
She says the pirates understand the gravy train they have ridden for the last few years from their ill-gotten gains is coming to an end.
"They have snatched too many ships. They have too many navies watching them and now Al Shabab enters the picture," she explained. "So they know they're not going to be able to maintain this activity."
Piracy is not a traditional activity for most of the young Somalis who have taken it up. She believes providing a consistent income would help break the cycle even though they have earned about $150 million from piracy.
To help encourage Somalis to patrol their own waters and discourage locals from turning piracy Ballarin has a plan to recruit 500 men and women to serve as a Somali coast guard operating out of Berbera, the country's major port. To fund it, she's talking with international aid agencies and encouraging members of the various governments running Somalia to tax the country's vibrant currency exchanges and some of its companies.
All this might lead a reasonable person to wonder just why Ballarin is doing this and what she has to gain. Is she CIA or a cutaway since she does have former intelligence and military officials on the board of one of her other companies, Black Star, and is known to have excellent contacts among the intelligence community?
First, Ballarin notes that she is trying to market a solution for failed states through Black Star. If she can demonstrate that it works in Somalia, which has not had a functioning unitary government in 19 years, she would have an excellent product to sell. She claims that she has spent all her own money on this five-year effort.
And she has invested a great deal of her self in it.
"If I had to pick a cause, I would have to say this is one that deserves all the attention it can get," Ballarin said. "Sometimes we are propelled down a path to do something for the right reasons and we just continue."