New approach to Somali pirates frees more hostages

The Economist has reported on a new strategy to reduce piracy incidents and free hostages.

The publication noted that some seamen have remained in captivity for months or even years because their companies refused to pay a ransom – often because their ship was uninsured, or had run aground, or had been disabled by fire, or had sunk.

John Steed, a former UN man in Mogadishu, said that “hard as it may sound, these guys, they don’t have any value”. But pirates and their backers are still loath to cut their losses by freeing such hostages without payment, becoming slave to the “sunk cost” fallacy feeling that a loss does not become a loss until it is realized.

Also, of the few Somali pirates who had released their hostages “for free”, most were killed soon after because they could not repay the financiers who underwrote the attacks and the upkeep of hostages.

The good news is that 54 hostages held on land by various groups of Somali pirates have been freed in the past few years because of an approach that estimated the pirates’ costs – often between $100,000 and $200,000 for renting a boat and getting weapons and kit; expenses for fuel and food; and payoffs to stop government officials, warlords and village elders from interfering.

If that amount or a bit more could be raised from charities and sympathisers, pirates would often accept the deal, once they were convinced that it was their only hope of satisfying their financial backers.

It is easier to raise money for “expenses reimbursement” than for the actual ransom, not just because the former is much less. “You can argue that you’re not enriching these people,” said David Snelson, boss of security firm Pbi2, which has helped free some of the hostages.

Covering pirates’ expenses proved unpalatable to the UN bureaucracy, so Steed quit in 2013 to continue his efforts from Nairobi through the charity Oceans Beyond Piracy.

He has persuaded Somali villagers to renounce pay owed by pirates for food, transport and guard services.

However, eight seamen are still held in Somalia, all of them Iranian fishermen who were seized in 2015.