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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.

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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Can you make a ship pirate proof?

January 12th, 2011
10:37 PM ET

"Best management practices." That's what crews use to ward off pirates as they sail through the danger zones on the high seas.  Captains of ships turn on water hoses, place barbed wire on ships, turn on lights, speed, to deter pirates from attacking.

I learned about what's called the citadel.  It's a small, strong room with a thick metal door, no windows.  It's stocked with food, water, communications equipment and a bathroom.  The idea is, if pirates get on board, it's over.  The best action a captain can order is to get into the safe room, the door is bullet proof and just wait it out, and call for help.

Sometimes there are just not enough crew to patrol the ships, so one laughable, but important technique is to take a mannequin out on the deck and have it pose as a guard.  You can't tell what's real or not, in the dead of night, on a boat far away, so the hope is that pirates will take off if they see what looks like an armed patrol.

There are some ships that hire private security guards who are armed.  There is a divided school of thought on this.  Maritime experts and NATO officials I've spoken to say that it's a bad idea because if you shoot at pirates, they will shoot back and the chances of getting crew killed are higher.

Also they worry about the chain of command. Who's going to order security to fire?  The captain?  Do armed guards to it themselves? Who takes responsibility?  What if they fire at genuine fisherman, who can be easily confused with pirates?   They add, pirates just want to take the hostages, not kill them.  On the other hand, some ship owners decide they need armed protection. There have been instances where private security guards have fired at pirates who were preparing to attack the ship, and they have successfully been fended off.

Everyone tells me that the bottom line solution to fighting piracy is not on the seas, but on the shore, on land.  Somalia needs to have a functioning government, stability, an economy.  It's currently a failed state, it's lawless and pirates can do what they want with no fear of consequences out on the Indian Ocean.

Doing business the pirate way

January 11th, 2011
05:01 PM ET

When you see Somali pirates out on the high seas, you see a rag-tag bunch of young men with weapons charging across the water, often high on a drug called khat. 

I never imagined that behind them, there is a very well structured, well-organized business plan that would impress any Wall-street firm.

Their business plan works like a well oiled machine and it’s intriguing. 

Investors and suppliers provide money and equipment to run the operation.  A gang leader then oversees, pirate action groups, the onboard commander, the accountant, a logistics manager... there is even a chef and a sous-chef.

According to a UN report, pirates are divided into class A and class B. 

Class A are the men who actually crew the mother ships (larger ships at sea where pirates sit and wait for their victims). These men also attack skiffs and carry out the attacks.  This group will typically consist of fishermen, who know how to operate at sea.

Fighters are former militiamen or young guys who have fought for years in clan wars and civil war. These guys will perform the actual boarding of the ship which is the most dangerous part of the operation.

There are financial benefits for anyone who gets on board first, and penalties for breaking the strict rules like hurting hostages or damaging the vessel for example. There are also technical specialists in this group, pirates with expertise in GPS, AIS, radios.

Class B pirates are the guards, usually older men who don’t do much fighting. Negotiators fall into this class, as well even though they are not usually even in Somalia.  Interpreters, boat builders, suppliers also come under this.

When the ransom money comes in - and it can range from two to four million dollars in cash - the first payment goes to the class A pirates and shareholders. 

Fighters are often paid in credit when the hijacked ship arrives to moor off the Somali coast. 

Class B guys are part of the operating costs. Financiers and investors get a 30 percent return on their initial investments!  Town elders usually get anywhere between 5-10 percent in mooring costs.

There is a whole industry that has sprung up in pirate towns.  People are needed to maintain the boats, provide the prostitutes, booze and drugs for pirates coming back with a hijacked ship, food, fuel, accommodation. Everything.  Pirate towns are booming.

It’s big money.  I mean think of being a young Somali man today.  You don’t have much hope of a decent livelihood. Piracy offers big bucks.

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Somali reveals secret life as a pirate

January 10th, 2011
02:12 PM ET

It took only about thirty minutes from my house in Nairobi to get to 'Little Mogadishu', where I met Gedi Mohammed Abdi.  

The area's actually called Eastleigh but it's almost one hundred percent Somali - both Kenyan Somali or Somali refugees from across the border. 

The action on the street is crazy with people selling wares, food, preaching, or just walking around.  Music blares from different corners.  The traffic on the roads are jam-packed. 

There's no way we'd have been able to navigate the area ourselves so we met up with two fixers at a restaurant, who jumped in our crew car as we drove through an area called 'California'! 

We finally stopped at a run down block of flats opposite a school ground and a couple of restaurants. The whole patch of grass was water-logged. It had been pouring.  Colourful clothes were flapping in the wind. 

I went up about three flights of stairs and entered a small room with one sofa and two chairs.  The colourful curtains were drawn.  Gedi had wrapped his face up tightly in a black scarf, leaving only a narrow slit for his eyes. 

He looked both intimidating and intriguing. I was excited because I had been working on this project in London for a couple of months and now here I was, interviewing a man who could give me first hand information about why he hijacked ships and crews for ransom and how he did it.  A translator sat next to him since we conducted the interview in Arabic.   

Gedi criticised large trawlers that would come to the Somali shores and fish for their tuna, and slammed ships that dump toxic waste in their waters. 

He says these were two reasons that initially galvanised Somalis to take action on the waters. 

Gedi also told me in Somalia, there are only three career options for young men like him: either join the militias, join al shahbab (the US has identified this group as terrrorist) or become a pirate. 

His uncle was a pirate and told him to come over to the coast.  Gedi told me he trained in a pirate boot camp that lasted a few months.  He learned how to swim, how to use weapons and how to get on board moving ships. 

He was sent on the defensive skiff (there are usually two skiffs in an attack) in the first hijack he ever did (Oct 2009). So he was part of the look out and the support team on the waters. 

He told me it was scary but he raked in $60,000, in that ONE hijack. He used the money, in part, to send his sister and brothers to the U.S. and UK. 

Most Kenyans I spoke to believe that much of the new money Somalia have in Eastleigh is pirate money. 

They buy things in cash - land, buildings, flats, everything,  I was told.  

Gedi says there is an al Shahbab presence in Eastleigh too where there is terrorist recruitment going on.  He  pointed out to me too that pirates also give ransom money as protection fees, to al Shahbab in Somalia.  Eventually he wanted out.  "It was getting too dangerous" he says.

At the end of the hour-long interview. He took off his scarf and showed me his face.  It was a baby face.  I was surprised. I thought I'd see a rough, tough, weather-beaten, scarred one.  I did not. 

He smiled at me,  and thanked me for listening to his story.  "What next for you Gedi", I asked?  He told me he was waiting to get a visa to Mexico and would they try cross over the border illegally into the U.S.

As part of a special series all week on Connect the World, CNN's Zain Verjee will be bringing us the untold stories of piracy off the coast of Africa. Each day she'll be writing a behind-the-scenes account of how she brought us the stories we'll bring you each night at 2100 GMT.

You can connect with Zain on her Facebook page by becoming a fan at www.facebook.com/zaincnn

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