Blackbeard still lives

Two hundred attacks, over $18 million in ransom: 2008 may be a record year for pirates

Fred Parle has some mementoes of the 47 days he was held hostage on a boat off the coast of Somalia this past winter: a fishing hat and an autographed 1,000-shilling note (current value 78 cents Canadian) that a senior pirate gave him as going-away presents. A file of notes, drawings and doodles from the lesser thugs that the 68-year-old Irishman hopes might someday form part of a book. Occasional nightmares. And the sure knowledge that even life’s most terrifying experiences eventually become quotidian. “They always had a Kalashnikov pointed at your back,” he says from his home in County Sligo. “But after a while you become rather blasé.”

Last Feb. 1, Parle, a marine engineer, was one of six crewmen aboard the 35-m Danish tugboat Svitzer Korsakov when it was set upon by two small boats filled with men brandishing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, 130 km off the Somali coast. The two dozen pirates, mostly young, khat-chewing militiamen, had the drill down pat. First, they directed the boat to their home port of Eyl, where 20 more of their fellows came aboard to share guard duty and discourage any rescue attempt. Then they stripped the ship of everything that wasn’t related to the engines or navigation. Finally, they fired off their US$2.5-million ransom demand to the tug’s owners, and settled in for the long weeks of negotiation. “There was no politics, or religion,” says Parle. “Just a straight focus on the money.”

With the exception of their two English-speaking leaders, the pirates were uneducated and seemed to know little about life at sea, afraid even to approach the controls on the bridge. But they had a shared commitment to keeping their meal tickets—the hostages—safe from harm. When the negotiations, conducted every afternoon by satellite phone, bogged down, there were threats, but no violence. And even after Parle and the boat’s captain, Colin Darch, an Englishman, hatched a plan, sending off a coded message to Copenhagen, dousing the boat’s lights, and barricading themselves in the engine room while they waited (fruitlessly) for a rescue mission from a nearby U.S. warship, there were no recriminations. “They broke down 13 watertight doors with hammers and chisels. It took them 19 hours,” recalls Parle. “But they seemed more relieved that we were okay than angry. We were precious cargo.”

As the weeks of captivity stretched into months, the pirates’ biggest concern became the fiscal drain of guarding the Svitzer Korsakov and its tiny crew. Their leaders kvetched endlessly about the expense of the daily rations of chapatis, goat and camel’s milk, and their inability to redeploy their resources toward the capture of other, potentially more lucrative vessels. In the end, Parle took it upon himself to broker a deal between his captors and the private security firm handling negotiations for the ship’s owners. He won’t discuss the terms of the agreement, but Capt. Darch recently told a British researcher that the pirates dropped their asking price to $900,000, and finally settled for $678,000—hand-delivered in cash.

It’s been a good year for one of the world’s oldest professions. With three months to go in 2008, global piracy is on pace for a record year, with just short of 200 attacks reported so far. The majority of incidents remain what some term “sea muggings”—opportunistic robberies of yachts and smaller ships travelling through long-time hot spots like the Niger Delta, the Bangladeshi coast, and the heavily travelled Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia. But it is the more spectacular hostage takings off the lawless Somali coast that have captured the public imagination. Right now, 10 gangs with an estimated 1,000 members are plying the waters off the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Sixty ships have been attacked—more than 20 of them captured—and 12 vessels with a combined 259 seafarers are currently being held hostage. In a report released last week, Chatham House, a U.K. think tank, estimated shipping companies and governments have paid US$18 million to $30 million in ransoms since the beginning of January. And the Somali pirates are growing bolder. The demand for the release of the Ukrainian freighter MV Faina, its 21-member crew, and cargo of 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, ammo and rocket-propelled grenades, is a cool $20 million.

Such brazen hijackings have left the world community scrambling to formulate a response. Off the Somali coast, more than 20,000 ships a year travel through the Gulf of Aden—the gateway to the Red Sea and Suez Canal—including tankers ferrying 30 per cent of the world’s oil. The United States and its war-on-terror allies already have 10 warships in the region, including the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec, currently escorting World Food Program (WFP) shipments to Somalia. Russia and Malaysia have now dispatched additional patrol vessels to the Gulf, and this past week, the European Union announced plans to launch its own anti-piracy patrols. But the chances of stamping out the problem by simply increasing vigilance seem slim. With a safe haven ashore, no domestic authority willing, or able, to take them on, and more than four million square kilometres of water to hunt upon, the pirates retain the upper hand.

“It’s a very dynamic business,” says Hans Tino Hansen, the head of Risk Intelligence, a Danish security intelligence firm. A year ago, there was only one significant pirate gang—the Somali Marines, who date back to 2005—and a handful of part-timers. Now, “the success rate and relatively high ransoms are fuelling a rapid expansion,” Hansen says. And as shipping companies and governments change their tactics, so do the pirates. Attacks close to shore, especially off south-central Somalia, have dropped dramatically since foreign warships began escorting WFP boats into Mogadishu’s harbour. Now the pirates are focusing their energy on the Gulf of Aden, and, with the use of “mother ships,” staging raids on far distant seas. On Sept. 13, a French fishing trawler, Le Drennec, came under fire 790 km off the coast, but eventually managed to outrun its attackers.

But the single biggest factor in the piracy explosion has been the ever-deteriorating security situation on the Somali mainland. The largest and most active gangs are based out of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, notes Hansen, where the local government has been unable to pay the police and army for months. As a result, security forces are more inclined to join the heavily armed pirates than take them on.

The crews have also cannily recruited from many of the country’s powerful militias and clans, and seem willing to kick some of their new-found wealth “upstairs” to politicians and community elders. For example, it is widely believed that Abdullahi Yusuf, a native Puntlander and president of the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, Somalia’s notional authority, receives “goodwill” contributions from the ransoms. And there are reports that an entire pirate economy has sprung up in towns like Eyl, with accountants, drivers, home builders, technology suppliers and even restaurants that cater meals for the hostage crews.

For the moment, at least, shipping companies seem willing to accept the relatively small risk of piracy in the region (60 attacks, however spectacular, mean that 99.999 per cent of ships still pass through the Gulf unscathed) as a cost of doing business. Taking the much longer, and stormier, Cape of Good Hope route between Europe and Asia can add US$20,000 to $30,000 a day in fuel and crew costs. In fact, the growing piracy problem has spawned a whole parallel industry of specialized insurers, risk analysts and crisis management firms. Seacurus, a Gateshead, U.K.-based insurance broker, has been offering kidnap and ransom policies for both shipowners and crew since 2005. “We realized there was a gap in standard marine coverage,” says Capt. Thomas Brown, the firm’s managing director. The Lloyd’s of London-backed policies cover not only the ransom, but associated costs like negotiators, interpreters, public relations specialists, rest and rehabilitation expenses for hostage crews, and “reasonable costs of plastic surgery.” Business was slow at first, but as of late, the phone has been ringing off the hook, says Brown. He declined to discuss the cost of such policies (some media reports suggest the going rate is now $9,000 per transit of the Gulf of Aden), but acknowledges that the premiums have seen a tenfold increase in recent months. Given the region’s unique challenges, it is still good value, says Brown. “You’ve got 1,000 pirates patrolling the water, so delivering $1 million cash in a rubber boat off the port of Eyl is a pretty scary prospect for those who have to do it.”

It was the Malaysian navy that reportedly performed the delicate task when the Malaysian International Shipping Company paid a rumoured $4 million to liberate two of its ships and 79 crew late last month. But most shipowners are turning to private firms to handle the logistics and safely retrieve their hostages. Gray Page, an Oxford, U.K., maritime security and investigations group, is one of several companies offering up pirate expertise. James Wilkes, the managing director, won’t talk specifics, citing confidentiality agreements, but allows it is a difficult business. “These guys are by no means chancers or amateurs. They are competent and hardened, and they know what they are doing.” Wilkes says the ransom demands that are reported in the press are often far different than the sums that end up being paid. But negotiations are almost always lengthy, complicated by the many governments—representing the interests of multinational crews and owners—that want to be involved. However, he defends the security firms as essential and experienced go-betweens. “We’re not in this to profit,” says Wilkes. “You’d have to be very hard-hearted and cynical to say we’ve got a good business here.”

If there is an upside to being captured by Somali pirates, it is that they too seem to attach a value to human life—albeit a strictly monetary one. Unlike their “sea mugging” counterparts in other parts of the world, they are rarely violent with their prisoners. (Two hostages have reportedly died, but it appears both succumbed to pre-existing medical conditions.) When French commandos captured part of a gang that had seized a luxury yacht this past April, they found a rule book that banned the mistreatment of captives, and specifically forbade sexual abuse.

In that aspect, these modern-day pirates seem to have reached some of the same conclusions as their 18th- and 19th-century forebears, who developed complex codes to govern their business and interactions. Peter Leeson, an economist at Virginia’s George Mason University and author of the forthcoming book, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economy of Pirates, says there are other similarities, including evidence that the Somali gangs have also come up with a set formula for dividing the loot, and even a compensation scale for industrial injuries—US$15,000 to the families of those killed “in action.” (Blackbeard-era pirates paid 600 pieces of eight for the loss of a right leg, 400 for the left.) “I think the closest comparison might be the privateers, or Barbary pirates,” says Leeson, noting that the Somalis also enjoy at least some state backing and external financing. The chief difference, says the economist, might be in their strong links to shore. “It seems these modern pirates are integrated into society in a way that their 18th-century counterparts were not. After plundering, they go back to their regular lives.”

It’s a connection that isn’t lost on Fred Parle. Even after his seven weeks in captivity, the Irishman maintains a measure of sympathy for the men who held him at gunpoint. The long, dull days gave him plenty of opportunity to converse with his English-speaking captors and delve into their motives. “The piracy money goes to feed hungry children and send kids to school. Maybe buy a camel,” says Parle. “Somalia’s a mess.”

Being captured by pirates was both the scariest and most exciting experience of his life, he says. And despite the lingering effects of his ordeal, the 68-year-old is considering putting back out to sea. He’s in overdraft at the bank, and with only a small government pension, has just sold his house to pay the bills. “I’d just like to slide into retirement and forget the whole thing,” says Parle. “But if somebody came to me with a job, I’m in a situation where I wouldn’t say no.”

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