Sea pirates of the 21st century are gangs run by criminal masterminds – hostage negotiator

The high seas in the 21st century are as dangerous as ever. Pirates are not just a legend from the past, but a modern day threat – though they certainly lack the charm of their Caribbean predecessors. They roam the waters on tiny skiffs instead of proud frigates, and deal not in gold but in the lives of hostages. Who are these predators of the international waters? How do they capture their victims, and how do they bargain and survive? We ask a man who has negotiated with pirate groups to secure the release of hostages, a senior adviser to the UN’s Maritime crime program, coordinator of the Hostage Support Partnership for Oceans Beyond Piracy – Colonel John Steed.

Follow @SophieCo_RT 

Sophie Shevardnadze: Colonel John Steed, coordinator of the Hostage Support Partnership for Oceans Beyond Piracies, senior advisor to UNODC's Maritime Crime Programme, it's great to have you on our programme, welcome. So, you have negotiated with pirates to free hostages many times. Who are they - an organised crime unit, hardened professional types - or just individual criminals randomly banded together?

John Steed: A combination of both, actually. Over the years, of course, Somalia has suffered appalling wars and famine and drought and economic problems, and so, along the coastal area the conditions are pretty poor, and as a result, under the leadership of criminal elements, these pirate gangs were formed and went out to the sea and were able to capture quite large numbers of commercial ships and hold them for ransom.

SS: You negotiated the end to one of the longest ever hostage sieges by Somali pirates - the 26 sailors were held for 5 years. What did they agree to in return for freeing the hostages? Did you have to pay them off?

JS: That's a good question. I can answer some of that, but, maybe not all of it. Over the last 4 and a half years - and that's a very long time for anybody to be held hostage in conditions like Somalia - we had to find a way to negotiate with these people and find some leverage that enabled them to come to a deal. You probably remember that at the height of piracy, when commercial ships were being held off Somalia, usually the insurance company paid out on the value of the ship and the value of the cargo, and these pirates were used to getting huge sums of money, many millions, and then, yet, there were some cases where the crew got taken ashore and that's where our program was formed, to look after what we called "the forgotten hostages", but part of the negotiating technique was to find a way of getting the pirates down from what they used to expect to something that was much lower, and what we termed as "compensation".

SS: But what kind of payoff are we talking about? How do you make people who want money, for instance, strike a deal without it?

JS: Well, that's one of the reasons why it takes such a long time, of course. But in this case we found agreement and partnership with the local community, with tribal elders and religious leaders, who also wanted this over with and put pressure on the pirates as well. You have to understand, and it may sound a little corny, but these people run up debts - over the four and a half years they've had to buy food and pay for goods and transport as they moved these people around and they run up quite considerable debts. So, what they really wanted is these debts to be paid and that's where we were able to find an accommodation. The local community wanted their debts paid, they wanted to be paid for the food and we wanted the crew back, and that's, eventually, how we were able to strike a deal.

SS:You mean, debts for maintaining these sailors hostage? Because I've heard these sailors were eating rats.

JS: Exactly - that's why I say it sounds a little bit corny. No, they didn't look after them well, many of the crew were tortured by these pirates in the early stages. Yet, they did provide water and some food, and they had to get that from the local village and the local community. And it was paying those debts where we were able to find a deal.

SS: Do pirates even care about their hostages’ well-being - just because they need them alive for ransom, right?

JS: Yes. In the normal course of things, in ransoms everywhere around the world, the commodity that they're eventually going to get paid for is the hostage - so you need the hostage alive and healthy. In the Somali context, living in the bush, living under the threat of armed conflict, interference from other gangs, they always want a quick deal and they have a habit of torturing the crew whilst they're on the phone to their family or the shipowner or even us. And, they seem to have little regard for the crew. As you know, three of these crewmen died: the captain died when the ship was first attacked, and two other crewmen died from what I would call 'neglect' during the course of their captivity.

SS:You say you’ve never been face-to-face with pirates - so how do you communicate with them?

JS: Pirates are very modern people: they communicate by WhatsApp and text and phone call. Communications in Somalia are quite good, but what they do, is appoint a negotiator for them, somebody who's good at communicating, speaks good English, and knows his way around. Some of these communicators have become quite expert at being the middleman, and have been involved in many of these sort of earlier commercial transactions. So, by and large, we talk through them, rather than talking directly to the pirates.

SS: Really? They are so modern they have WhatsApp and mobile phones - they probably have bank accounts as well, right? Or how does the money transfer take place?

JS: I don't want to go into too much detail about the money transfer, primarily because we may need to use the same system again. There are still a large number of hostages inside Somalia, so our job is not finished. So, I don't want to go into too much detail about how that is done, but largely, these kingpins and the masterminds behind these pirate gangs become well-known people. Some of them even appeared on UN sanctions lists, and going after the kingpins was one of the methodologies that countries used to try and end this scourge.

SS: You‘ve said agreeing a deal makes the pirates ‘behave honorably’ - how do you make sure the deal is successful, how do you know when they'll hold up their end of the bargain? And what happens if they stand you up?

JS: That's always the thousand-dollar question. I have to say, in the years that I've been doing this, we've never been double-crossed by the pirates. In the end, they want to deal as much as we do, and we just try and find ways of binding them into that deal. In our case, we use a contract - and we get the pirates and the local community and even representatives of the hostages themselves to sign that deal. That sort of binds them in and makes them behave honorably. They need to trust us as much as we need to trust them, so if everybody behaves in the right way, you hope and pray that you're going to get a good deal and you're going to get people out.

SS: So, once you negotiate the hostage release, you obviously know a lot of information about pirates and their whereabouts, right? So, usually, like, when there's an FBI operation or CIA operation, you release the hostage but then you definitely go after a person who keeps that person hostage. What happens to the pirates? Why do people not go after them? Why do people not capture the attackers afterwards?

JS: That's not entirely true. Over the years of piracy, a large number of pirates have been arrested and appeared in court and have been sentenced to quite long terms in jail. UNODC, whom I assist, have built a number of prisons around the region and in Somalia and they are full of Somali pirates who've been captured by the international navies at sea and handed over for prosecution. But there's still the "Mr. Big-s" and the individual hostage takers that need to be, eventually, prosecuted, if the opportunity arises. You are probably aware of the pirate who's name is Afweyne, and he was encouraged to make a visit to Belgium to make a film and got arrested by the Belgian authorities for his involvement in the piracy of a Belgian-flag ship and he's currently undergoing trial with one of the former regional presidents, for piracy right now. So we have been quite successful at getting some of these people and putting them in jail.

SS: Now, piracy today is not like the old days, when pirates sailed on their own frigates with cannons - the modern day pirate is a guy in swim shorts armed with a rifle -  how do they manage to overpower huge merchant ships with just speedboats and limited arms?

JS: In the early days, that's exactly what they were doing: they were sailing in a number of skiffs, quite long distances away from the Somali shore. They've gone as far as Seychelles up into the Gulf area, so they attack ships quite a long way away from Somalia, but they would approach it with several skiffs and open fire on the ship, on the bridge of the ship and communicating with the captain to stop. In a lot of cases, the ship stopped and they were able to board and then take that ship and bring it close to the Somali shore. Once it was close to the Somali shore, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the navies to engage or border ship that's static and has a whole bunch of pirates onboard. You know, what has happened since, the last major attack on the ship was in 2012, and this is being prevented by a series of measures, one of which is having naval presence - and there's the EU Navy and several independent Navies operating in the region in a counter-piracy role. But also, the shipping industry has introduced its own measures, called "Best Management Practice", and that basically says that when you're in the high-risk area, you report in and out of the area, and sail at a very high speed, and - one of the most significant factors - you carry an armed team onboard, and it's the combination of these measures that have made piracy impossible and that's why there hasn't been an attack since 2012. But my big warning to everybody is: if you reduce the navies or force your ships to sail slower or you cut into one of the African ports, then you give these pirates an opportunity again. They haven't gone away, they're just doing other things.

SS: Armed security has a good success rate off the Somali coast, but in the waters of West Africa, the pirates don’t shy away from a fight - and win sometimes, why's there a difference?

JS: I don't think there's a huge difference. The pirates of Somalia were pretty aggressive too in the early days, and of West Africa, the pirates groups are equally aggressive and have attacked ships in ports, as well as on the high seas. I don't think there's a huge difference. Also, in Southeast Asia, piracy is pretty aggressive and violent. So, violence applies all over the world.

SS: I heard that the Somalis complain that Nigerians operate off their coast - and the Somalis end up getting all the bad press - why do pirates care about their reputation, considering what they do?

JS: Somali pirates, they are largely... they are criminal gangs, they are run by criminal masterminds, they are not interested in what people think of them and they don't care too much about the hostage, as you've seen, several have died... in the case of these Naham 3 that we've just managed to rescue - back in 2013, it was tied to another ship, also held by the pirates. And that ship sank on a stormy night, and despite everything, the bravery of the crew of the Naham 3 - several of them jumped into the sea with ropes in order to rescue the poor guys from this ship called the Albedo. Eventually, the crew of the Albedo was taken ashore and we managed to get them released in 2014, but this crew were then held for long time after, and this is one of the things that drove us to get them free: they were such heroes, rescuing the guys from the Albedo. So, to me, they were real heroes, but the pirates definitely didn't care about them or the crew of the Albedo. They just went to save their own lives.

SS: Are commercial vessels insured against piracy? It’s hard enough to get your insurance company to pay for your car accident, how do you get millions out of them for stolen cargo?

JS: Yes, the ships are insured, and, of course, sailing in the high-risk area, the insurance premiums became quite high, but if you're insuring a ship worth many millions of dollars and a cargo that's also extremely valuable, the insurers then were able to pay out these very high ransoms that the pirates were asking at the time.

SS:Do insurance companies have an incentive to go after the pirates to get their money back? Do they take part in the anti-piracy fight?

JS: No, I think, just like you as a journalist, you go on assignment in a high-risk country, your company ensures you and you have kidnap and ransom insurance for when you travel in the high-risk countries - it's the same with ships. The insurance companies don't expect to get their money back, but they do expect their clients to use all of the mitigations methods that I've talked about earlier: armed guard, sailing at high speed, calling and answering in and out of the high risk area - but they don't expect to get their money back.

SS: Not all states have a right to prosecute pirates - for instance, Nigeria, where a lot of pirates come from, doesn’t have a comprehensive law against them - why not?

JS: It's a good question! I don't know. I am not an expert on West Africa, the Indian ocean is more my area of expertise, but piracy is an international crime, it has to take place on the high seas for it to be an act of piracy. If it takes place in-shore, then it's just armed robbery at sea: two totally different crimes. When it takes place on the high seas, it's an international crime and pirates can be arrested by any country and handed over to a country that also recognises piracy as a crime. So, quite a lot of pirates were arrested on the high seas and taken to the Seychelles for example, and prosecuted in a court there. Many pirates are serving their time in Seychelles' prison. The same here in Kenya: Kenya recognises the international crime of piracy, it, under its own law, recognises that crime and therefore they are able to prosecute. The same in India, where there's an awful lot of pirates in prison at the moment. So, it's an international crime and could be tried and prosecuted by anybody who recognises that crime.

SS: Stealing crude means hijacking the tanker, disabling its tracking devices, hiding it and then finding a buyer for the oil - the very high value of crude was worth the hassle, but with the decline in oil prices - are pirates also losing interest?

JS: Hm, good question. I think, largely, the answer is they don't have to hide the vessel too much, they just have to park the vessel somewhere off a shore where they feel that they're safe and don't get any interference, while they negotiate with the insurance company. They're not trying to sell the crude or syphon it off into smaller barges - that's far too complicated. It's much better to go for the insurance.

SS: According to a report by risk consultancy GardaWorld - hijackings for actual products are becoming more rare -  Is hostage-taking more profitable for pirates nowadays?

JS: I think it was, but it's become less successful for the reasons we talked about earlier on. Kidnapping for ransom in conflict areas is pretty prevalent, in many places all over the world, even in Somalia, the risk of being kidnapped on land is quite high. I can think of several examples of where people have been kidnapped in Somalia and then handed over to the pirates for negotiation and ransoming, because the pirates are somewhat better and more experienced at it. There are a couple of Kenyan cases that I can think of, two men who building a petrol station in Mogadishu were kidnapped, and are now held by a group of pirates further up the coast for supposed ransom.

SS: Five years ago, the Somali pirates were the most notorious - what about now, which place on Earth is most dangerous for seafarers?

JS: Probably, West Africa and also South-East Asia, but probably West Africa is the most dangerous at the moment.

SS: Pirates don’t live on boats - they need shore bases to operate. Anarchy in Somalia explains piracy there, but what about the South China Sea, the gulf of Guinea - where are those pirates based? What states exist that tolerate pirate bases on their soil?

JS: They're not tolerated, they're just able to hide in isolated areas on the coast where policing is extremely difficult, and they're able to hide on the remote islands or small inlets where they're well away from prying eyes. But when they take a big ship, they have to park that ship somewhere where they can actually negotiate for the crew or for the cargo. Most navies and police units will not interfere with the vessel once it's fully boarded and guarded by pirates. To take a ship in those conditions requires very special forces, and military intervention in any hostage situation, as you know from around the world, is very complicated and only done in the extreme case. So, largely, the pirates feel pretty safe once they're close to the shore and they have their full complement of guards onboard.

SS: The Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte said he will adopt a hardline stance in dealing with piracy in Southeast Asia - similar to the ways he’s been dealing with drug lords, for instance - that is, killing them. Is this going to work?

JS: Well, I can't condone killing anybody, but taking a hard line, a firm policing line with pirates is definitely the way to go: have well-equipped police forces who are able and understand the maritime environment, that can arrest these pirates on the high sea and have good laws to prosecute them - pirates respond to a strong deterrent.

SS: Rolls Royce is developing technologically advanced ‘ghost ships’ - cargo ships that don’t need a crew to sail. Can autonomous ships be a safer option for international shipments - or are they going to be easier for pirates to target?

JS: I don't know too much about 'ghost ships', but in my understanding commercial shipping is going to continue the way it is now for quite some time yet, but ships with small crews or no crews of course are going to become vulnerable and we need to develop new and modern deterrents for them.

SS: Colonel John Steed, coordinator of the Hostage Support Partnership for Oceans Beyond Piracies, senior advisor to UNODC's Maritime Crime Program and negotiator who's secured the release of hostages held by Somali pirates, discussing global counter-piracy efforts and if the battle against crime on the high seas can be won. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.