Negotiating with Somali Pirates 'They Know It's a Successful Business Model'

Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan now specializes in negotiating with Somali pirates in hostage cases. He talks to SPIEGEL about the best tactics to use with the pirates and the problems of delivering millions of dollars in cash.

SPIEGEL: How does the money get delivered to the pirates? For example, are speedboats used?

Jack Cloonan: Delivering money is an extremely difficult part of the negotiation process because once you strike a deal, you do have to deliver the ransom. We used to rent tugboats in Mombasa. But the tugboat captains -- some of whom have delivered ransoms repeatedly -- have actually charged more for the delivery of the ransom than the actual ransom amount. What we do is, we cruise to a certain agreed-upon location with coordinates, you get within sight, the delivery is made from a bagman to the bad guys and then you hope that the pirates do the right thing. They generally do.

SPIEGEL: Are there not other ways to deliver the money?

Cloonan: We have suggested that -- a low-altitude drop with a GPS-guided parachute -- and that has been done repeatedly. We have not done that. We sought out and have the ability to do that. And just so you know, a million dollars in $100 bills is 29 pounds (around 14 kilograms). Delivering ransom and moving cash within Africa is difficult. It would be nice if the Somali pirates would accept a wire transfer. But they don't.

SPIEGEL: What kind of currency do they want?

Cloonan: Oh, US dollars, no euros in our cases. And marking currency is a waste of time in Somalia, by the way.

SPIEGEL: How does the communication with the pirates work? Do they have satellite phones?

Cloonan: In our cases, we have always communicated with them via the ship's communications systems. The pirates use that to their advantage. They can get to the shipping owners. They can put a hostage on and say: "I want to speak to his family." Or they may confiscate other satellite phones and they call relatives. We've had cases where they have threatened people on the phone, where they've certainly fired off guns and told us they've executed somebody.

SPIEGEL: Is it hard to communicate with them?

Cloonan: Sometimes English is a real problem but generally you can find somebody to speak English. In some cases, when you get the crew on there, and the crew speaks multiple languages, there's a good way to exchange information between us and the victims. Because it's likely that the Somali pirates don't speak Japanese, or Malay, or Ukrainian, or Georgian, or Russian…

SPIEGEL: And you're able to sneak in some comments to the side.

Cloonan: Absolutely.

SPIEGEL: And the pirates are not suspicious of that?

Cloonan: They do get suspicious after a while, but my job in the negotiations is to keep this contact alive and well, to continue to negotiate. You don't want to go days without talk. It has happened many times with us that we've made a call back to the pirates and they won't answer. No news is typically interpreted by a client as bad news, because you don't know what's going on. Are they going to beach it? Are they going to create economic disaster for you? An environmental disaster? Are they going to kill the crew? Remember, this is where the shipping companies go crazy. They are worried about their liability on all of these issues.

SPIEGEL: So they are worried about the legal consequences?

Cloonan: On top of the kidnapping, many clients get sued. You can successfully negotiate for the release, pay a ransom, and you can still have a crewmember come back and sue. They say: You didn't take the right precautions, you put us in harm's way, you didn't put countermeasures on board, you prolonged the negotiations.

SPIEGEL: From your experience with the Somali pirates, are they intelligent people? Or are they simply thugs?

Cloonan: They're not stupid. They know that they've got a life -- they can leverage that. They know that it's a successful business model. They know that they can operate in this wide swath of area almost with impunity and they can pick and choose. And they're developing better strategies. They're going further out from the coast because they know the ships have been advised by the International Maritime Bureau to stay a minimum of 200 nautical miles offshore. If ships come in within say 50 or 100 miles, they're easily stopped.

And they are effective -- for example, when they call family members to induce stress. I think shooting off a gun during a telephone call and saying you just killed someone is pretty effective. I think moving ships and threatening to beach them is effective. The fact that they anchor the ships within sight of each other is very intelligent. Some are better than others.

SPIEGEL: In terms of the sociology of the pirates, do you have a sense of their hierarchy or of their structures?

Cloonan: Oftentimes when we've been engaged you'll see that there's a commander who's in charge once they get on board. And that situation can be very fluid. You might be dealing with Ahmed one day, maybe for two days, and then he gets frustrated and you get somebody else that comes on. As these things go on -- and they can typically last a month or more -- you'll have several representatives from the pirates but then at some point where you're really getting close and you're getting frustrated and they're getting frustrated, invariably the decision-maker comes forward. I equate it to buying a car in the United States. You're dealing with somebody and negotiating and then finally he just throws his hands up and says: "All right, I've got to go talk to my manager." And then they come back in and make a deal.

Our experience with the pirates suggests to us that there is an organizational structure. So if we're not making progress with somebody on board during the negotiations, then we ask for the right person, the decision-maker. He could be on land, he could be on board.

'We've Never Heard the Word "Revenge" Before'

SPIEGEL: Would you say it's Pirates Inc.?

Cloonan: It's Pirates Inc. Look at it as organized crime. They just happen to be in the business of hijacking boats. There is a command and control structure. It's not clearly the German military or the US military in terms of chain of command, it's less doctrinaire and so on, but there is a command and control structure because there are beneficiaries at the end of the food chain. People have to get money. People have to be rewarded for what they've done.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that many of the pirates were originally fishermen?

Cloonan: They are fishermen one day and over the weekend they become pirates and on Monday they're fishermen again. That is what we understand. If you're facing starvation or facing other economic deprivation and you have no alternatives, you might decide that it's in your best interest to do that. I think that's perfectly logical.

SPIEGEL: What will be the repercussions from the American assault to liberate Captain Richard Phillips?

Cloonan: We've never heard the word "revenge" before and now the pirates are vowing revenge. I'm wondering now if you get taken hostage and there's a US citizen on board -- will they be inclined to treat that prisoner worse because of who they are and what's occurred?

SPIEGEL: Do the pirates ever make odd requests?

Cloonan: In terms of odd requests, usually it's us insisting that food be brought on board. When the rations get low and the hostages are getting only one meal a day, the pirates use that to escalate the tension. They'll also say: "The ship is adrift. We've exhausted the fuel."

SPIEGEL: Does that work?

Cloonan: Obviously the ship owners have a pretty good idea of what's on board, they know where they were when they were stopped, they understand what the fuel capacity was. So typically when the pirates try to force that, it doesn't work out particularly well.

It's good when you're able to communicate with the ship's master in a different language and he'll give you the lay of the land. He'll say: "Yes there are 12 people on. Yes, they have AKs (ed's note: Kalashnikovs). Yes, they have machine guns. Yes, we're moving around. Yes, some of the people are here, some of them are there."

SPIEGEL: How do the Somali pirates see themselves?

Cloonan: I think if you're challenging the likes of the United States and other countries in Western Europe, they see themselves as very successful. They see themselves as downtrodden and exploited -- and so they're heroes.

SPIEGEL: What do they do with the money?

Cloonan: There are reports of the pirates investing the money in real estate. If you look in some of the cities, you'll see these unusually large residences and we know that some of the money there comes from the proceeds from the ransoms.

SPIEGEL: What do you think can be done to stop the pirates?

Cloonan: I think there are two things that need to be done: One, the shipping companies themselves have to decide that they need to take a different route that might take them away from that area.

Secondly, I think you really do need to employ countermeasures, at least in the near term. You really need to have escorts. There is that underway now, but there are always the exceptions and the pirates are going after those exceptions, those who choose to travel on their own, with their lights on at night and who don't follow the requirements of the International Maritime Bureau.

They need to get non-lethal countermeasures on board and they need to contract more escort services, because the international anti-piracy coalition can't do it all. So until such time as the shipping companies decide that they can't rely upon the military, I suspect we'll continue to have these episodes.

Interview conducted by John Goetz

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