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Live from Abu Dhabi Connect the World takes you on a journey across continents, investigating the stories that are changing our world.

Show me the ransom money

January 17th, 2011
06:05 PM ET

One of the toughest parts of this assignment was trying to get an actual negotiator to talk to me about how they do their jobs. Most I spoke to, refused to be on camera, for fear of exposing their tactics to the pirates themselves.

I was told the pirates are savvy folks; they are watching international TV and get on YouTube.

Here's what I learned: When an owner has his vessel hijacked, he will put together a team on how to negotiate with the pirates.  One lawyer told me, "Basically it involves a telephone in his office with the pirates on one end and the owner on his."

It's tough to negotiate with pirates because they are often drunk or high on a drug called khat. They can make irrational decisions.

Pirates have their own negotiator, someone who speaks English who is not necessarily a pirate, but has expertise in negotiations.  It's a long drawn out process, almost like haggling over a price at a market.

The pirates are in a perfect bargaining position. They have very little to lose. They are under no time pressure, they are not going to be attacked by the military, they won't be arrested or tried and they are not losing any money by just holding the ship.

Imagine the pressure on the families of the crew that have been hijacked.  Pirates are holding on to the ships for a longer period of time, so the families are a major pressure point. So is the welfare of the crew.

The amount of money they are demanding is going up too. Experts say in 2005 pirates would ask for about half a million dollars in ransom over an average period of five weeks. Now they demand anything up to 20 million dollars a ship and it takes 6 or seven months to get that ship back.

One of the most fascinating parts of what I learned was the delivery process of the ransom money. It is literally parachuted down to the ship in bright orange canisters and then taken on board the hijacked ship, where it's counted and checked that it's not counterfeit.

There are companies who know how to arrange ransoms and engage with the pirates to tell them what to do.

Once the pirates are satisfied with the cash, they release the ship. One expert told me, “You have to trust that they will leave the ship and that's what they do. And that's because they have their business model in mind that they take the ship – they don't generally harm the crew, and as long as they release the vessel, then the process can continue.”

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