Sunday, November 1, 2009

Somali pirates do a reality check, of sorts

It's being reported that the ransom demand for Rachel and Paul Chandler - the British couple seized by Somali pirates just over a week ago - has dropped considerably. The initial demand of something like US$7 million may have been reduced to £100,000 (about US$165,000), possibly reflecting a better understanding on the part the pirates for the of the financial resources available to the yachters. However, British media outlet The Independent is also reporting that the Chandlers' captors may want to see some of their brethren recently apprehended by European naval forces released as part of the deal.

As should be clear to anyone, the Chandlers are not wealthy and do not have the same sorts of financial backers to pay off the pirates holding them hostage as commercial shippers do. Indeed, holding the couple for an extensive period of time could prove costly for the gang that seized them. These criminal gangs operate on a strictly profit-based model in which a rich payout is expected for all the money and time that goes into taking a prize. A ransom of $165,000 is not high; one could almost call it a recessionary amount, more like what Somali pirates were getting five or six years ago. This may be one reason there appears to be some dissension amongst the pirates holding the couple: It's not hard to imagine someone higher up in the criminal organization asking "Why did you grab these two small fish when there are more valuable targets out there?".

At the same time, a spokesman for the pirates holding the couple expressed a somewhat surreal reasoning for why they kidnapped them in the first place. In a brief transcription posted on The Guardian's website, the conversation went like this:

Caller: "They have been captured by our brothers, who patrol the coast. We have been informed about their presence in the area, where bandits operate. If they do not harm us, we will not harm them, we only need a little amount of seven million dollars."

Recipient of call: "Seven million dollars is a lot of money, isn't it?"

Caller: "No, no, no, NATO operations have had a lot of negative impact here, they have destroyed a lot of equipment belonging to the poor local fishermen. They arrest fishermen and destroy their equipment, in defiance of our local administrations. They illegally transfer the fishermen to their own prisons, and prisons of other foreign countries, so when you consider the damage and all the people affected, we say the amount is not big."

If this weren't so distorted, I'm sure NATO officials would be happy to see how effective their naval operations off the Horn of Africa were having on the pirates themselves. But no mention was made of the European Union's (EU) armada in the region, the two Coalition Task Forces, or the various efforts by nations as diverse as China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, India and even Iran (among many others).

Point is, NATO's counter-piracy operations have not been the only naval operations in the region. And I'm somewhat surprised the pirate spokesman singled out the Treaty when it would have been easier - so to speak - to harangue the EU. (See also today's incident in which Norwegian navy sailors came under fire in the Gulf of Aden and killed two people - reportedly a Somali and Yemeni. Norway is member of NATO, but their warship was working in concert with the EU flotilla.)

But there is a political dimension to this situation that could drive the ransom up. The Independent piece also talks of how all the media attention focused on the Chandlers could have a detrimental effect on their safe release, which is true. Oddly, the less attention paid about them the more likely it is the pirates will give in to a lower ransom. But make no mistake, the couple will only be released if someone ponies up some money. Or someone tries a risky rescue operation - not done lightly after the French fiasco with the yacht Tanit last Spring.

Sitrep update: A French tuna boat is reported to have repelled an attack on Saturday while sailing in the Indian Ocean between Somalia and the Seychelles. It's said that soldiers aboard the French vessel fired off rounds from their weapons and fireworks of some sort.

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