Piracy off the coast of Somalia is big business. Last year alone pirate gangs were paid an estimated £35m from holding scores of ships and hundreds of crew members to ransom.
Securing their release is the responsibility of a hidden mini-industry of lawyers, negotiators and security teams based nearly 7,000km (4,200 miles) away, in London, UK, the business capital of the world’s maritime industry…
When a ship’s owner discovers one of their fleet has been hijacked, the first port of call for them is normally to a lawyer like Stephen Askins, whose firm is one of the few that deals with kidnaps and ransoms at sea.
“We would expect to be called early,” says Mr Askins. “And how you then deal with the negotiations will be a team decision…”People will do it in different ways,” says Mr Askins, “but at the end of the day it’s somebody from the owner’s side talking to someone from the pirate’s side, negotiating their way to a final settlement.”
No two kidnaps are the same but the proliferation of attacks off the coast of Somalia in the past year means a pattern has been established where the pirates see it as a business. They may be armed and dangerous but, Mr Askins says, money is their chief motivation.
“They are negotiating for money, therefore anybody who has been on holiday and has tried to bargain with an Egyptian [market trader] for a carpet will understand how difficult it is to negotiate a conclusion. But we don’t have the option of walking away, we have got to keep negotiating.”
Somali piracy is different. Paying a ransom is not illegal under British law, unless it’s to terrorists. And while governments have failed to clamp down to hijackings, a precedent of paying up has been established. So, as soon as pirates set foot on a ship they know pay day is only a matter of time.
The going ransom rate is $1m-$2m, but getting to a final figure is like a “tense boardroom negotiation” he says…