I flew to Somalia in early 2012 to write about a pirate gang jailed in Hamburg. They had been captured two years earlier when they tried to hijack the MV Taipan, a German cargo ship, near Somalia. Their marathon trial represented the first proceeding on German soil against any pirate, Somali or otherwise, in more than four centuries. I had reported on the case for Spiegel Online, where I worked in Berlin, and it seemed to me that a book about the case and some underreported aspects of Somali piracy might be interesting. ... Gerlach assured us that we would be safe, and his friend, the regional president, sent a personal car. A Somali gunman rode with us. But by then it was too late. We had been researched. I pieced this together only months after, when a pirate showed me an image of my own face on his phone. The pirates had pulled an author photo of mine from an old New York Times interview. I’m a dual citizen, and I had travelled to Somalia on a German passport; but they knew I was an American writer. ... A hostage does nothing, but the long hours are a crisis of longing. My sense of self, in fact my sanity, would surge and ebb. I tended to wake up in a stark panic and pray for no greater mercy than the dawn.
Inside the strange world of kidnap and ransom survival schools. ... Wilson, a 43-year-old British Army veteran who once served in Northern Ireland, picks me up on a swampy morning at a Motel 6 in Dania Beach, a suburb of Miami. He is the founder of Risks Incorporated, a private security firm that offers a three-day kidnap and ransom course in which I’m enrolled. A skeptical man with a dark sense of humor who has worked in the security industry for two decades, Wilson moved to South Florida 13 years ago with his then-wife and never left. ... Wilson briefs me on the bourgeoning business of international kidnapping. The White House’s recent acknowledgment of the accidental killing of two al-Qaida hostages in Pakistan in January, as well as the dark news from Syria in recent months, both overshadows and underscores the fact that kidnappings are a global scourge. As incidents have increased worldwide, a parallel industry has emerged, one that includes insurance companies, negotiators, lawyers, and security firms like Risks Inc. In a 2010 investigation, London’s Independent newspaper dubbed this the “hostage industry,” and estimated its worth at about $1.6 billion a year. ... Costs range from about $600 to a couple thousand dollars. Some are entirely in a classroom; others include role-playing. ... Wilson’s course is somewhere in between: part tutorial, part field exercise, tailored to the needs of the client. The company’s website promises to “take you into the real world of terrorism and kidnap and ransom!”
The Albedo was weighed down with cargo, leaving its main deck close to the water. The pirates retrieved a long ladder with hooks on one end, hung it over the deck wall, and climbed it easily, without any shocks from the electric wire. (It may have malfunctioned, or the assailants may have been lucky and missed it.) The first pirate to reach the barbed wire pulled back for a moment, then charged through it, the metal cutting into his flesh. “I did not imagine people like these living in this world,” Kumar said. ... “We want only company money,” he said. “If company pay money, no problem.” He ordered the seamen to collect everything valuable from their cabins—cell phones, cash, cameras—and pile it on the bridge. “Crew problem, Somalia problem,” he said. “Crew no problem, Somalia no problem.” ... After the Albedo anchored near Somalia, most of the hijackers left the ship. They were replaced by about a dozen armed guards, two cooks, and a large man with a hoarse voice, who introduced himself as the new boss. Jabin, who had stayed on board, would be his head guard. The crewmen were assured that they would be home within weeks. “You are our guests,” the boss said. “We are only interested in money.” ... For weeks, Kumar refused to believe that Rajbhar, his closest friend on the ship, was gone. He considered jumping off the deck and drowning himself. Aliabadi looked after him, taking on his duties and making sure that he was eating. Eventually, Kumar decided that, if he and his crewmates were to survive, “we would have to fight.” They couldn’t force their way off the ship, but perhaps they could reason their way off, even if their captors were unreasonable. He resolved to learn everything he could about Jabin and the other hijackers. ... Soon, they were describing the mechanics of the Albedo operation. Hijackings were complex financial enterprises, they explained, with committees of investors, accountants, even classes of shares.
Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe. ... While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year. ... In news releases and statements, the United States Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million over the same period. ... These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal Qaeda documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year. ... In its early years, Al Qaeda received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans. ... While in 2003 the kidnappers received around $200,000 per hostage, now they are netting up to $10 million, money that the second in command of Al Qaeda’s central leadership recently described as accounting for as much as half of his operating revenue. ... “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”