Author Margot Kiser Posted: 08/06/13 10:24 EST
Nearly two years after Somali pirates kidnapped them, two Spanish foreign aid workers suddenly reappeared at Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu last month and got onboard a small plane headed back to Madrid. An undisclosed ransom was paid for their release, and though it’s still unclear exactly who received the money, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, announced the return of Montserrat Serra, 42, and Blanca Thiebaut, 32, at a press conference last month, saying the women are in “relatively good health.”
The two MSF aid workers arrived in Dadaab, Kenya, a sprawling metropolis of makeshift huts and tents, in the summer of 2011 to begin setting up a hospital for the more than 500,000 refugees, mostly Somalis who fled to Kenya because of war and famine. In October, Serra and Thiebaut were setting up a hospital at a separate camp 5 miles away when six gunmen ambushed their truck, shot and wounded their driver and abducted the women. By the time Kenyan police helicopters spotted the abandoned vehicle, the kidnappers had already taken Serra and Thiebaut across the Somali border.
Very little is known about what happened to the women during their 19 months in captivity. Yet interviews with sources and reports from U.S. and Kenyan authorities shed light on the ad hoc way that Al Shabaab militants and Somali pirates (who reportedly call themselves The Indian Ocean Network) often work in tandem to hide Western hostages and share the ransom money. “Hostage bartering has been known amongst pirate groups, and it is thought that Al Shabaab has handed some hostages over to pirate groups for negotiation,” says John Steed, a former British army colonel and current executive director at Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security, an organization that assists Somalia’s efforts to combat piracy.
Doctors Without Borders2
Montserrat Serra, left, and Blanca Thiebaut
Over the course of their ordeal, Thiebaut and Serra appear to have been shuffled between a series of windowless mud huts every few weeks with nothing to read and no one to talk to. Like most other hostages in the region, the two likely subsisted on a single meal a day of boiled potatoes, pasta and, occasionally, camel meat. In recent photos taken when the women landed in Madrid, they looked as thin and frail as the Somali refugees they once assisted. The gunmen who captured Serra and Thiebaut belonged to a militia that a minority faction of Al Shabaab hired, according to Matt Bryden, director of the Kenya-based Sahan Research Group, which focuses on the Horn of Africa. He tells Vocativ the women were immediately taken to the Somali port town of Kismayu, which is also controlled by Al Shabaab, a militant Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda.
The pirates and the militant group once had little use for each other. But since July 2011, when African Union forces pushed Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu and cut off many of its revenue streams from the capital city’s port, the group has been strapped for cash. Yet a senior counterterrorism expert in Kenya, who asked not to be named because he or she was not authorized to talk to the media, tells Vocativ that the kidnappers offered the women to Al Shabaab’s commanders in Kismayu, who apparently wanted nothing to do with them. Instead, the kidnappers dragged them nearly 800 miles north to Harardhere, in central Somalia, where they off-loaded their victims onto a band of pirates for $200,000, a well-connected research analyst based in Mogadishu who wished to remain unnamed tells Vocativ. The Indian Ocean Network had found its newest prize.
According to a United States–based authority on piracy and international crime, Mohamed Abdi Hassan Afweyne (who is considered the father of Somali piracy and appropriately dubbed “Big Mouth” by fellow thieves of the sea) admitted in interviews that pirates initially paid the Islamist group $100,000 for safe anchorage in Harardhere between 2008 and 2010. That amount steadily rose and Al Shabaab began demanding 20 to 30 percent of the ransom for both merchant vessels and individual foreign hostages.
The Mogadishu-based expert says that pirates paid Al Shabaab leaders various forms of “protection money” as well as a cut of the ransom. In the case of Judith Tebbutt, a 56-year-old British tourist who was kidnapped (and later released) in 2011, the pirates paid $250,000 to pass through Al Shabaab’s land. For safe passage or anchorage of hijacked merchant vessels off the coast of Harardhere they could snag up to $300,000.
By 2012 Al Shabaab no longer controlled Merca, a city 50 miles south of Mogadishu and the area where the MSF workers were last seen. The Mogadishu-based expert concludes that pirates were the likely recipients of the MSF aid worker ransom, and he says it is rumored that Al Shabaab received a 20 percent cut of that ransom, or khumus.
Somali Pirates Map
In 2011 the average ransom for vessels seized in the Indian Ocean was $5 million, according to a report published by Oceans Beyond Piracy, a Colorado nonprofit. “Al Shabaab commanders usually won’t harbor kidnappers and their hostages,” Bryden says, “but they tolerated them in their midst and eventually took a cut of the ransom.”
Within the Indian Ocean Network, negotiators often pocket extra cash, thanks to a simple, but risky, scam. They will often quote a higher ransom than the kidnappers initially ask for, then keep the difference. If caught, however, the kidnappers will often kill them.
Most aid organizations provide armed security to their workers as they travel between the growing number of satellite camps around Dadaab. But MSF operates differently. Despite the group’s presence in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, workers are rarely kidnapped. The organization says it strives to remain neutral and stay out of politics. Days after Serra and Thiebaut disappeared, Spanish MSF President Jose Antonio Bastos said at a press conference, “We want to strongly distance ourselves from any military or other armed activities, declarations or presumptions of responsibility related to this case.”
Yet neutrality often doesn’t matter when it comes to piracy, as many of the groups involved are mostly interested in making money however they can. Al Shabaab, for instance, got its hands on a piece of the $1.1 million ransom that a private security company and family members paid to liberate Tebbutt, the British tourist, Bryden says. At one point last year, the Islamist group demanded $68,000 per hostage for two Kenyan aid workers who were kidnapped while distributing food and medicine to poor. When it became clear that the families of the hostages couldn’t afford the amount, and the Kenyan government refused to negotiate with terrorists, elders from the hostages’ community eventually agreed on an undisclosed sum with Al Shabaab.
Somali pirates have carried out 218 successful hijackings since 2005 off the Horn of Africa, resulting in the abduction of more than 3,700 crew members and the total ransom payment of an estimated $385 million, according to a June 2013 World Bank report. As many as 97 non-Somali crew members died in the attacks, the report claimed. Although ransom rates are holding steady, the heyday of piracy appears to be over. Attempted hijackings declined by 70 percent from 2011. The number of successful piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean continued to decline in 2012, with just 14 reported hijackings. And on the ground in Kenya, kidnapping incidents are almost nonexistent. According to a United Nations report released last month, the decline is in part due to more effective European Union and NATO patrols, as well as the use of private security aboard merchant vessels.
Judith Tebbutt survived her kidnapping. Her husband’s killer recently received a death sentence from a Kenyan court.
Judith Tebbutt survived her 2011 kidnapping.
Pirates once saw tourists in Kenya as easy pray because of poor security. There hasn’t been an abduction since January 2012, when American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was writing a book about piracy in Somalia, vanished. He is still missing. “It is highly unlikely that kidnappers will strike again at tourist areas on Kenya’s north coast,” says Major Emmanual Chirchir, former spokesman during Operation Linda Nchi, Kenya’s military campaign in Somalia to fight Al Shabaab. “But towns and refugee camps like Dadaab near the porous Kenya-Somali border in the northeast remain vulnerable.”
The release of the two Spanish aid workers has recharged the debate over publishing ransom amounts, as some argue it drives the dollar amount higher. But that, according to Bryden, simply isn’t true—especially now that kidnappings seem to be waning. “Everyone knows everything in Somalia,” he says. ” If a ransom is paid, word gets out very quickly.”
For now, however, exactly how the ransom exchanged hands remains a secret.
Margot Kiser is a Kenya-based American correspondent covering maritime piracy, security, geopolitics, wildlife conservation in East Africa.