Ransom handover is hole in Somali pirates' net
The release of a Spanish tuna trawler Tuesday that supposedly came after the EUR 2.6 million payment once again highlights the threat of modern-day piracy.From parachuted bundles of dollar bills to suitcases of cash transiting through east African capitals, there are many ways to deliver ransoms to Somalia's modern-day buccaneers.
The ransom handover is the most critical time in the hijacking of a ship; the single moment when the pirates, but also the crew, are at their most vulnerable.
On Tuesday, Somali pirates released a Spanish tuna trawler and its crew of 36 which they seized more than a month ago in the Indian Ocean.
The announcement came after Somali pirates said they had been paid a USD 4 million (EUR 2.6 million) ransom.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero would not confirm if a ransom had been paid, saying only that the "government did what it had to do, it worked within the law in cooperation with the ship's owner and the family members of the crew."
When the giant Saudi tanker Sirius Star -- hijacked in 2008 by members of the same group -- was released in January, the crisis ended fatally for six pirates who couldn't swim when their boat sank on the way back to shore.
"The small boat was overloaded and going too fast... The survivors told us they were afraid some foreign navies would attempt to catch them," the leader of the pirate group, Mohammed Said, told AFP.
Pirates initially said USD 3 million were paid but sources close to the negotiations said a total of close to USD 8 million was paid to various people to secure the ship's safe release.
Ransoms have often been parachuted by small aircraft directly onto the hijacked vessel's deck.
Always paid in cash to avoid modern transaction monitoring, ransoms can also be delivered by agents, generally through middlemen, either in Somalia or abroad, notably in Nairobi, Djibouti or Dubai.
When the luxury French yacht Le Ponant was hijacked by pirates in 2008, an estimated USD 1.2 million were delivered to secure the ship's release, according to sources close to the pirates.
Yet the freeing of Le Ponant illustrated the risks incurred at the time of the transaction by the pirates, whose organisational structure remains very rudimentary and heavily reliant on trust.
According to several businessmen in northern Somalia who refused to be named, part of the cash the French paid was counterfeit and virtually impossible to use.
"I wanted to make a business deal with one of the pirates and I saw that the notes were counterfeit. In one bundle, all the notes had the same serial number," one businessman told AFP.
French special forces even recovered part of the ransom during a military raid in which they netted six suspected pirates.
Since that incident, which took place in April 2008, the pirates started taking more precautions and bringing counting machines and counterfeit money detectors on board.
Some pirates were already very specific on the notes that should be used for the ransom, demanding only 100 and 50 dollar bills and refusing certain years of issue.
"They won't take any 100 dollar bills from 1996 and they also try to avoid the very recent bills, out of fear they can be traced more easily," said one Somali source who was involved in several negotiations.
"Other kinds of expenses can include security for the pirates on shore when a large ransom is expected," the same Somali source said.
Much of the expenses can be covered by local businessmen who "invest" in a group of pirates holding a ship.
"They will pay for the food and the cigarettes, they will even pay the bills of the pirates' relatives, hoping to get a reward when the boys come back with their ransom money," he said.
18 November 2009
AFP / Jean-Marc Mojon / Expatica