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.
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.
High Stakes Poker
It was an odd game of poker. Abdi told the hijackers that the Bremen team had offered $2 million. But the shipping company had, in fact, not increased its previous offer. This made developments on Sep. 1, 12 days into the hostage crisis, all the more surprising. All of a sudden, the pirates said that they were satisfied with the offer from Bremen, prompting the Bremen team to wonder what had changed their minds. Were they afraid that the US Navy could launch a rescue mission? Or did they calculate that each additional day spent in the bay near Eyl was preventing them from hijacking more ships?
The two sides spent several days negotiating the money transfer. Abdi said that the only option was to hand over the money on board, noting that it would be the "only way we can save our asses." Then Abdi mentioned a problem of a more personal nature. He was merely a middleman, he said, and he had convinced the pirates to come down from their original demand of eight million to a little more than one million. "I saved you seven million, which means that I have my price." But the Bremen team was unwilling to pay more, and they advised Abdi to try to "get some of the ransom money."
Stolberg, convinced that he was approaching a breakthrough, encountered an unexpected obstacle in Germany. The state bank in Bremen did not have enough dollars on hand. Bank notes had to be brought in from Hamburg, and because the state bank there could only pay out a portion of the large sum in $20 bills instead of $100 bills, the shipping company needed two large pilot suitcases to accommodate all of the money. It was then flown to the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where it was loaded onto a helicopter and taken to a small tugboat in the port city of Mombasa. From there, the English security firm took the ransom money to Somalia. After seven days, the tugboat had reached the "BBC Trinidad."
On Thursday morning of last week, two boots were moored to the Beluga freighter, the hijackers' speedboat on one side and the tugboat from Mombasa on the other. A doctor examined the crew and the pirates counted the money. Martin, the head of the security firm, recognized the pirates. He had handed over a similar sum of money a few weeks earlier to secure the release of the German ship "Lehmann Timber." The pirates divided up the money and placed it into 18 bags, presumably to pay 18 different clans. Then they left the ship, and the "BBC Trinidad" was allowed continue its voyage to Muscat.
"The Situation is Exploding"
The effort cost Niels Stolberg several million euros, although his insurance company will likely reimburse him for a portion of that money. But he could be at the mercy of the same criminals by tomorrow, he says. "The situation at the Horn of Africa is exploding," he says, adding that commercial shipping urgently needs convoys protected by the military as they pass the coasts of Somalia and Yemen.
European Union foreign minister took the overdue step of forming a special unit to protect shipping from pirates off the Somali coast. The "coordination unit" is designed to group warships, primarily from the French and Spanish navies, patrolling in the Gulf of Aden.
Thomas Kossendey, a state secretary in the Defense Ministry, represented Germany at that meeting. He knows that the region is considered a hot spot worldwide, and yet he has been one of the most vocal opponents of a "spontaneous" rescue mission by the German military, the Bundeswehr. In fact, Kossendey and his boss, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), want more. They are pushing for an amendment to a law that prohibits the navy from engaging in policing missions.
It was because of this law that the German navy frigate "Emden" spent months sailing off the coast of Somalia, while various freighters were being hijacked, and yet it did not intervene. The Bundeswehr justified its inaction by claiming that the legal basis for such intervention was questionable. If the EU approves an operation, State Secretary Kossendey assumes that the Germans will take part in a concerted action against the pirates, beginning in mid-December.
Until then, however, the situation could escalate even further. Walter Lindner, the German ambassador in Kenya, sent an urgent appeal to Berlin only a few weeks ago. The diplomat noted that the pirates were using the millions they had collected in ransom money to constantly upgrade their arsenals. This is bad news for ship owners like Stolberg, with at least two ships from his fleet passing the pirate coast each week.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan