Piracy in the Gulf of Aden: German Shipowner Paid Ransom to Somali Pirates

By Udo Ludwig and Holger Stark

For weeks, heavily armed Somalis held a German ship and its crew captive until the owner paid millions to secure their release. The ransom will enable the pirates to buy more weapons and boats. The owner says it's time the military stepped in to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden.

When German ship owner Niels Stolberg first went into business 13 years ago, he knew there were risks associated with being an entrepreneur. Cut-throat competition, the tax authorities, deadbeat customers and bad employees were only some of the problems he might face, but at least they were foreseeable. But pirates?

Stolberg, 47, sinks into a black leather couch in the office of his company, Beluga Shipping GmbH, on the banks of the Weser River in the northern port city of Bremen. Less than an hour ago, he paid pirates a ransom to release his freighter "BBC Trinidad", captured and held for three weeks off the Horn of Africa. "No one can imagine what we have been through here," says Stolberg.

He hardly slept the night before. At home, he monitored the path of his ship to the location where the money was delivered, and at five a.m. he drove to his company's head office where he waited for news from the Somalian coast. Last Thursday, at approximately noon, the pirates finally released the ship, after holding it for 21 days. Now Stolberg isn't entirely sure how he should feel: relieved or angry.

Ransom Will Go Towards Faster Boats

He has a pretty good sense of what his ransom payment means. The hijackers will use the hard currency -- US dollars -- to invest in new, high-speed boats, weapons and modern technology. Within only a few days, the pirates will have become an even greater threat. Beluga Shipping GmbH owns more than 50 ships, and the Horn of Africa lies along a trading route that no major ship owner can avoid. "The pirates are becoming more professional, more aggressive and strategically more adept," Stolberg warns. "If we don't defend ourselves now, the situation will only become worse."

The story of the hijacking of the "BBC Trinidad" is a textbook case of modern piracy. For the heavily armed pirates, it was practically child's play to gain control over the modern, $23-million (€16-million) freighter. The ensuing weeks of haggling were not unlike wage negotiations in industry, complete with the same bluffing tactics, trickery and threats to cancel negotiations. But the difference was that this was a matter of life and death, not just money. If one of the parties had lost his nerve, deadly shots could have been fired.

The odyssey of the "BBC Trinidad," which was carrying pipes and other equipment for the oil industry from Houston, Texas to Muscat, Oman, began on Aug. 21. A Chinese ship sailing within view of the "BBC Trinidad" warned the captain that he was being followed by suspicious-looking boats. The German ship, sailing under the flag of the Caribbean nation of Antigue and Barbuda, began evasive maneuvers, but its crew soon realized that this was not enough to escape the speedboats. When the pirates came within shouting distance, they fired warning shots into the air and demanded that the crew of the German ship shut down its engines.

A few weeks earlier Captain Jan Konecny, a Slovak, had attended a seminar given by the shipping company on the North Sea island of Spiekeroog. In the class, attendees learned how to behave when attacked. Konecny knew that it was important to remain calm and not become aggressive. When his ship was in fact attacked, the crew on the bridge managed to press a key that activates an electronic system that automatically sends the ship's current coordinates to Bremen.

Nine Somalis boarded the ship, seven of them armed with Kalashnikovs and two with bazookas. They forced the crew to hand over all of their belongings, including mobile phones, money and provisions. Then they ordered the captain to maneuver his ship into a bay near the town of Eyl, a pirate stronghold where many other freighters and sailboats had already been taken.

Tense Negotiation

When ship owner Stolberg learned of the hijacking of the "BBC Trinidad," he set up a crisis management team that included security personnel from within his company, two agents from the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) and experts from a well-known British security company. An officer on the ship managed secretly to send an email, so that Stolberg learned of the circumstances of the hijacking and that, in addition to the captain, the Russian and Filipino crew members were in good shape.

Four days after the hijacking, a call was received in Bremen from a satellite phone on board the "BBC Trinidad." The captain spoke for a moment, and then passed the phone to a man named Abdi, a Somali middleman claiming to be merely "a servant" of the men behind the hijacking. He demanded $8 million (€5.5 million) in ransom money. His bosses in Somalia, Abdi continued, had said that if the money were not paid, they would "blow up the ship." The parties agreed to conduct another phone call the next morning.

The Bremen crisis team formed a strategy for the negotiations decided on an initial amount to offer the pirates. The German chief negotiator said that because the shipping company was still relatively new to the market, it could not pay that much money. The Germans offered $800,000 (€550,000). Abdi replied that this was "unbelievable," and far too little. He said that he would not even give the number to his bosses, because if he did they would "take some of your crewmembers and could punish them."

The hijackers brought the ship to within four miles of the coast, to demonstrate that they could do as they pleased with the crew, at any time. The next day, the Germans submitted a new offer. It was a few hundred thousand dollars higher than the first one.

Pirates Didn't Eat, Just Took Drugs

Once again, Abdi stressed that he was merely the interpreter. He said that his bosses were sitting next to him, but that he could already say that the new offer was "not acceptable." At one point the captain managed to tell the Bremen staff how dangerous he believed the situation on board was: "The fact is that they are taking drugs. They eat nothing and they drink nothing. Instead, all they do is eat green grass. I think it's something like coca. Who knows what they will do if they go crazy."

On Aug. 27, the connection to Somalia was repeatedly interrupted. To reinforce his demands, Abdi said that Somali pirates had just seized a number of ships, that "various people were murdered" on the ships and that his group "could kill your crew." But he also promised to continue negotiating with the leaders of the pirate gang. To sweeten its offer, the Bremen team told him that it could get the money and bring it to Africa very quickly. Stolberg had already calculated that every day the ship was kept idle was costing him $25,000 (€17,240).

Meanwhile, food supplies were running low and temperatures often reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on board the hijacked ship. To save water, the crew stopped showering. The captain told the Bremen team that Abdi was "extremely upset" about the situation. Abdi, for his part, said that his bosses were getting impatient and had threatened "to sink the crew." But he also hinted that his bosses might be satisfied with $2 million (€1.4 million), but only if things went quickly. To increase pressure, apparently, the crew was given no food for a day.

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