The Amira Chronicles (Case of the Missing Photo)

The woman who I profile in this Sunday’s Washington Post magazine enjoyed a brief flurry of media attention in late 2008. Several news outlets reported that Somalia pirates had turned to Michele Ballarin, a North Virginia businesswoman, to help negotiate the release of two ships that had been seized off the coast of Somalia.

How did she become a supposed confidante of Somali pirates?

From a Nov 28, 2008 ABC News story:

“Michele Ballarin has gone over there for five years on her own, built a network of clan and sub-clan leaders in every region of the country,” Ross Newland, a business colleague of Ballarin’s, told ABC News Wednesday.

I bolded the above because Newland is the main source for the story. There is no mention of his former 26-year career in the CIA as a station chief and senior intelligence officer, which is odd since the piece reports that Ballarin has “connections to U.S. intelligence and the military.” (In 2013, Newland published an e-book called, “Cooking for Divorces: The Spy who Fed me.”)

Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who writes about Ballarin’s dalliance in Somalia in his recent book on the CIA, also has a chapter on Newland. ABC’s omission of Newland’s background is a journalistic lapse, but it is not the most curious aspect of this story or others that reported on Ballarin in 2009.

At the time of this particular piracy episode involving Ballarin, which centered on a Ukrainian ship (the MV Faina) and a Saudi tanker (MV Sirius), the newsworthy development included a key visual element caught on camera by a photographer. Some quick background: During the standoff in the negotiations for both ships, Ballarin had suddenly emerged as an intermediary. reported:

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.

Photos of the sign accompanied all the stories that reported this news. I remember seeing the pictures at the time and so does everyone I asked who is familiar with these stories. But those photos have mysteriously disappeared from the internet. The substituted images are generic Somali pirate photos. It’s a very strange thing.

The original photo of the “Amira” sign has been thoroughly scrubbed from archived stories on the web, including those that spread in Somali media. Look at what shows up for the ABC News piece when you plug it into the Way Back machine: An empty square white box where the photo should be.

I only noticed the picture went missing because I wanted to use it in my Washington Post magazine story. After I couldn’t locate it this summer, I asked the photo editor of my Post story to see if she could dig it up in the AP archive. She couldn’t find any record of it.

Who made this photo disappear and why?


Next: The 2009 photo of the sign that read “Amira” may be gone, but there is a story behind how she got it hoisted on the captured ships.

6 Responses to “The Amira Chronicles (Case of the Missing Photo)”

  1. mem_somerville says:

    That’s freakish.

    Would it possibly be in any of the video stories of the time? Maybe you could get a screen grab of that.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    If you or anyone could find such a story, I’d be much obliged.

  3. Andy says:

    Keith, I can’t find a picture either, but there are several Russian news articles about Amira’s “interference” in the negotiations. Have you seen those?

  4. kkloor says:

    I asked an expert to sweep the internet for me and he turned up empty-handed, too.

  5. mem_somerville says:

    I watched some pretty obscure African news services, but didn’t see any banners like that. And I checked out the new AP service for video but it didn’t sound like it was in there based on the descriptions.

    I’m astonished that anything from a story that large can disappear like that. Has Amira become a Pro-Ana? A way we don’t want hijackers to behave?

    I will also note that some of my cohorts have been more active about screen grabs of stuff that is at risk of going away. Storage is cheap now, and making your case later sometimes requires it.

  6. Pdiff says:

    What about library print magazine or newspaper copies? If the AP or similar had sent it out over the wire, the tree-based media likely would have used it at some point.

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