Somali Pirates and the kidnap for ransom business

Criminals who work on land but who are also pirates when the mood takes them is hardly a new phenomena. In fact, it’s one which has plagued Somalia for years, thanks to the actions of terrorists, local militia and clans.

The piracy model itself relies on the taking of hostages just as much as the capture of the vessel the hostages were on board. The emotional pressure placed upon shipping companies and insurers when pirate negotiators use crew as leverage is obvious, as is the pressure from relatives at home and the media. Few people care if Shipping Company A has a VLCC worth millions of dollars with a similarly large cargo value sitting off Somalia in pirates’ hands, but throw in 20 or so human beings from their country into the mix and it becomes a very different story.

Since 2012, the pirate model has been broken; pirates succeeded when the risk/reward ratio was in their favour. The increased naval presence in the region, combined with the common use of private maritime security companies (PMSC) and a greater adherence to Best Management Practice has seen the scales tip against the pirates. The figures speak for themselves, with no merchant ships captured by Somali pirates in 2013.

With so much pressure at sea, it’s not surprising that those same criminals have moved into land-based opportunities. And it’s not new, either, nor is the targeting of foreign nationals for kidnap.

When things became a little too hot on the waves, the most famous pirate, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known to pirate watchers as Afweyne (or Big Mouth), turned his hand to khat distribution and, according the 2012 United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, land-based kidnap for ransom (KFR). The Hobyo-Harardheere Pirate Network (HHPN) became less active at sea compared to other gangs in 2012. However, Afweyne, along with other senior figures such as his son, Abdiqadir, Ahmed Saneeg and Mohamed Garfanje (also Gafaanje) kept their hand in and some moved into KFR as another way of making money. At the same time, they began to use hostages as political pawns by demanding not only ransoms, but the release of fellow pirates held in foreign jails.

Two Seychellois fishermen, Rolly Tambara and Marc Songoire, taken hostage when their vessel, the FV Aride was hijacked on October 30th 2011 found themselves being used as bargaining chips when Garfanje’s gang demanded a ransom as well as the release pirates held in the Seychelles. It was believed that one of the jailed men was a nephew of Garfanje. Happily, Tambara and Songoire were finally freed in April 2012 after a year in captivity after the alleged payment of a ransom.

In September 2011, Judith and David Tebbutt were attacked at the Kiwayu Beach Resort in Kenya’s Lamu area. Tragically, David Tebbutt died during the incident, but his widow was kidnapped and taken back to Somalia. At the time, al Shabaab was blamed, although the attack had all the hallmarks of Somali pirates. And it’s here that the disconnect comes into play. They may have been pirates too, but they were criminals first and foremost. Tebbutt documented her ordeal in a book, and was finally freed after relatives paid her ransom of $1.1 million in March 2012.

At around the same time as Tebbutt’s kidnapping, a gang took a 66-year-old French woman, Marie Dedieu, from her home in Manda Bay, Lamu, Kenya. The gang was described as “Somali gunmen” and they returned to Somalia with Dedieu after kidnapping her on October 1st. Tragically, despite attempts at negotiation to free her, Marie Dedieu, who suffered from heart problems and cancer, died in captivity.

Naturally, in the face of such incursions, Kenya stepped up its security and we haven’t seen a repeat of these incidents.

Again in October 2011, two aid workers with the Danish Demining Group (DDG), Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted, were kidnapped along with a Somali colleague in Northern Somallia. The group was traveling to Galkayo airport to fly to Kenya when at least 10 armed men in two Toyota Hilux trucks kidnapped them. The kidnappers were part of the security team supposedly guarding the group. The hostages were handed over to a pirate group in Bajeela district, around 120km south of Galkayo. The pirates then moved them to a location close to Harardheere in Mudug.

As is well documented, Buchanan and Thisted were freed following an operation conducted by US Navy SEALs on January 25th, 2012. During the rescue, nine pirates were engaged and killed by the SEALs.

Great news for Buchanan and Thisted. Not so great news for an American journalist named Michael Scott Moore. On January 6th, Moore was on his way to the airport (anyone see a pattern emerging?) in Galkayo to catch a flight to Nairobi when he too was kidnapped by 15 men in SUVs. Again, the kidnappers were security guards who had conspired with pirates to snatch Moore. Unfortunately for him, the SEALs simply didn’t have time to search for him during their operation to rescue Buchanan and Thisted.

On October 13th, 2011, two Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff, Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut, were abducted from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya by al Shabaab terrorists. The women were subsequently sold to HHPN and held aboard the then still floating MV Albedo. Afweyne and his son were both rumoured to be involved in ransom negotiations to release the women in 2012 in Mogadishu.

Ultimately, the MFS workers would have to wait until July 2013 for the freedom, having spent 644 days in captivity.

The most recent addition to the pirate kidnap list are two Kenyan engineers, abducted from the Hodan district in Mogadishu on January 12th. This week, Andrew Mwangura, Secretary-General of the Seafarer’s Union of Kenya, announced that the pirates holding the two had demanded a ransom of $1 million for their freedom.

Piracy hasn’t gone away. It’s merely reverted to its land-based criminal roots until the opportunities at sea improve.