An interview with Mr. Rob Phayre, the author of “The Ransom Drop”
Mr. Phayre is the second book author offering an interview to the Futureoftheocean.com. The first book author was Mr. Wright and we’ve discussed the shipping in Canadian Arctic.
The discussion with Mr. Phayre was started, same as with Mr. Wright, by author’s intention to promote his book “The Ransom Drop” – so our second author moves the spotlight from the chill and frozen Canadian Arctic to the hot shelves of Somalia washed by the Indian Ocean. Instead of discussing the challenges of a harsh climate, I found myself discussing about the realities of piracy and maybe more important about the human and historical aspects of piracy as a social phenomenon.
I trust that this last line made you curious enough for spending your next five to ten minutes reading Mr. Phayre’s views and, maybe equally important meditating to the implications of the ideas discussed in this interview. Nevertheless, if this interview will stimulate you to continue your conversation with Mr. Phayre via his book “The Ransom Drop”, then I’ve paid my debt to the author.
Thank you very much Mr. Phayre for finding time to prepare and send me in advance such great material as a base for our discussion. I can see here the combination between the ex-military helicopter pilot and the writer – very organized but also creative. I think that the military helicopter pilot is a good point for starting this discussion, am I right?
Yes, that works for me; Training as an Army officer and then flying training took nearly two and a half years. It was an intense and exceptional formative experience. Nevertheless, different maybe of many others I also had possibility to practice what I was trained for because I commanded a flight of helicopters in the Second Gulf War, and I flew the first British Army helicopter across the border into Iraq on the first day of the war.
Please observe that I said I had the possibility and not the opportunity. It feels wrong to me to see war as an opportunity, even though I know the experiences I had were some of my most formative as a person and as a leader. Without doubt I found one of the peaks of my professional career at war.
However, at that time I was 27 years old, and I had under command 30 men and women, and this gave me a huge opportunity for personal growth.
We were also extremely lucky to have no casualties, but the entire experience of a war can only make one appreciate life more. It wasn’t understood fully at the time, but the mental health aspects of that period of our lives as serving personnel are still becoming apparent today.
How did you made the transition from military helicopter pilot to a security professional specialised in the delivery of ransoms to Somali pirates?
The first step in this direction was to move to Africa. My wife and I moved more precisely to Kenya because my wife had accepted a teaching position.
We thought initially that we would spend two, maybe three years there and then return to the UK. The plan was that in meantime we would have an adventure and explore my wife’s family’s heritage – a family of settlers in Kenya.
Looking back now it looks that we were just young and naïve (in the good way!) because after 17 years we are still in Africa.
We’ve been lucky to travel broadly and found Africa fascinating, it’s amazing but a common mistake is to assume that Africa is something homogenous.
Africa stretches from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope (to be precise Cape Agulhas) and it is home for more than 50 countries and many cultures and cultural variations.
For us, the immersion in various African cultures has been an amazing experience and one has to do this with immense respect and gratitude as is the case with any great culture.
I think it is a no brainer that somebody with your military and maybe more important mission orientated, people leading background will move into security, and the mainstream imagination will trough into this mix piracy too.
I also come from family with a long military and government service background so, maybe, in a subtle way, this adventure was also important for my own growth.
I have lived in Africa for nearly 17 years. During that time, I worked on more than 30 projects that delivered ransoms to Somali pirates. I have also supported a number of people resolving onshore kidnapping incidents. Just as a bracket: If I had to put a figure on the total amount delivered in ransom, it’s just under 100 million USD.
I can say now that I specialised in Indian Ocean piracy resolution, where the vast majority of incidents had Somali linkages. The existence of a failed state provided safe harbour for pirates to bring home their catch and negotiate their release. In some tragic circumstances though, vessel owners abandoned their crews. If you want to learn more about that, John Steed has written an excellent book on the subject called, Between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Could you say that you are specialized in solving some piracy issues also because of “The Ransom Drop” method?
Yes definitively, As a team we developed and utilised a special mechanism that allowed us to drop the Ransom for a ship out of an aircraft by parachute.
The pirates would collect the money after it fell into the water, take it to the ship, count it and then leave. At that point, another team that we had already pre-positioned, would board the ship, help the crew get it underway again and escort it to the nearest safe port.
I’ve was only involved in that particular subject for about three years, but I found it all so fascinating that I wrote “The Ransom Drop” book.
I will ask you this directly: Wasn’t dealing with Pirates risky?
There were a number of risks during those projects. Delays could mean the pirates would lose patience and we would have to go back to the negotiating table. The money delivery could fail. We never lost a load to a bad drop, but it was close occasionally. The pirates might not have left the ship after we paid the ransom, or the rescue team could get attacked on the way to collect the ship. We managed all of those risks to the best of our ability.
Mr. Phayre Rob has written a thrilling fictional account of one such drop blending excitement with reality. His novel explores the origins of Somali piracy and the horrific impacts on the crews that were held and tortured for months on end.
“The Ransom Drop” book is available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback. The audiobook will be available by November 2021.
I assume that the first priority for concluding the mission successfully is when Pirates leave.
Did the Pirates always leave?
For me the priority has always been protecting life, above all else. For those ransom projects I worked on then yes, the pirates leaving is a good start! Full success was the safe recovery of the crew and the vessel. Simply put, the Pirates were businesspeople. Granted businesspeople with no moral values but still businesspeople. If they hadn’t surrendered the ship after a delivery, then they wouldn’t have been paid again. They would accrue all the costs of running their projects and not get any more financial rewards. I am aware of several projects where hostages didn’t get released after a payment, but in many cases, they were not negotiated professionally.
I think that a very sensitive topic when piracy is being discussed is the governments’ politics regarding piracy.
Many governments say they don’t pay ransoms, and would prefer others didn’t, what do you say about that?
Yes, it is a sensitive area but maybe what makes it more sensitive is the fact that it’s a very grey area.
It depends on the government and the part of the world where the hostage taking has happened. The French government for example will pay ransoms to get their citizens back. In fact, there have been a number of protests when they haven’t. Most western governments will publicly say that they don’t make substantive concessions to hostages. That is the right approach in my opinion. Nation states making payments with unlimited funds just raises the cost of ransoms for everyone else. However, it is also right that individuals, if they choose to, should be able to pay ransom to release their loved ones. That all works fine and is generally ignored by governments as long as payments are not made to terrorist organisations. I recently ran a Linkedin poll on that question. More than half agreed that ransoms should be paid, but of them a proportion said not if it involved funding terrorism. About a third of those polled said ransoms shouldn’t be paid at all.
Mr. Phayre Rob asked a very simple question on LinkedIn
Should you ever pay a ransom?
Please use the button below for finding the result after 206 votes have been casted.
I would assume that you know inside out the phenomenon of Piracy. Do you think you can nail down the definition or the essence of Piracy?
I have some experience with Piracy and am happy to offer an opinion, but I can’t say I know the Piracy model inside out. Piracy as we know continues to be an issue all around the world and therefore, we need to pay more attention to it. Even such a free discussion as this could help the public to be better informed about the phenomenon.
It’s important to use the right terminology, Maritime Criminality, Maritime Terrorism and Maritime Piracy for a start.
Maritime Criminality is what we see mostly in West Africa now, short sharp attacks, brutal harm and even killings. The criminals want to get things done quickly, shock and awe, steal what they want to steal and then get away before any response can happen.
Maritime Piracy on the other hand takes longer, it’s riskier to the hostage takers, but the rewards can be considerably higher… it is basically run professionally as a business, and I would suggest that this is of huge importance. For Maritime Piracy to succeed, the pirates need a safe place to hold a vessel for a long period of time. That’s why a failed state like Somalia was such a good place for that type of piracy to mature.
Maritime Terrorism on the other hand, is what we are seeing off Yemen, and recently off Oman too. Whether its drone attacks, remote controlled boats packed with explosives. The aim there is terror, death and a political agenda. In Maritime Terrorism, an actor will target either a specific vessel, or flag state to enhance their political aims. Money has nothing to do with it. The idea of ramming a skiff packed with explosives into the side of a super tanker and causing a massive loss of life as well as what could be one of the largest oil disasters in history is not a pleasant thought for a Pirate… Pirates see no monetary value in doing that though the terrorists would bask in the glory of instantaneous media coverage.
Rob Phayre (continued):
I think it is also interesting to observe that the evolution of modern piracy in the Indian ocean created a huge business opportunity for the supporting components of the maritime industry: the insurance companies, the maritime security companies and the hostage resolution organisations.
As piracy increased, those vessels that implemented effective risk mitigation measures were able to continue to operate. Those that didn’t were more likely to get caught.
These days, those measures have been formalised into Best Management Practices and there is a central code that all owners and captains can follow. It’s not a legal requirement that they do, but in certain parts of the world, if they don’t, they could risk their crews’ lives and invalidate their insurance which risks their business.
In any case I’ve noted a continued evolution of the two business, the illegal one, the Piracy and the legal one, all the stakeholders named above. When one party makes advancement, the other party does its best to match it or to overcome it.
What do you think are the roots of Piracy? Could these roots offer an excuse for Piracy?
I don’t believe that there is any excuse for piracy. Some argue that the profits feed families in a failed state. Sure, but at what cost to the seafarers, the shipping companies, the global consumers. Vast sums of money have been spent securing shipping lanes and supply lines. It doesn’t all come from the same pot of money, but if even a fraction of it had been put into sustainable development projects in Somalia then Piracy there would not have evolved as it did.
The roots of Somali piracy?
I have the opinion that the commonly used thread of foreign offshore fishing vessels plundering the Somali coast is used too often as an argument. Sure, it’s a potential catalyst, but simply put, money and power were the key drivers, once they were available to be taken. War lords and clan chiefs could raise huge sums of money, equip their personal forces and expand their fiefdoms. Individuals could earn a living that just wasn’t available to them before. Political leadership firstly didn’t have the power or reach to be able to police the whole of the coast line, and those that might have been inclined to were most likely corrupt.
How could things be improved?
In the longer term, only sustainable development, other employment opportunities, the reduction of the ease of taking available targets, rule of law, effective military response and such are the only way to continue bring down the maritime piracy risk. Something that was very effective, but which took a few years to implement was initiated by western governments. As soon as there was a lull in the number of vessels being held offshore Somalia, the risk of inadvertently paying money to terrorist organisations in Somalia made it a very serious offence to pay ransom. I am not aware of any proof that any ransom was ever directly paid to a terrorist group for maritime piracy in Somalia, but there was always the potential for side payments, protection money etc being paid by the piracy groups. It was certainly a factor in the decision process for many risk management companies to stop making payments.
It is clear that you have plenty of interesting information with the public but how did your transition from a man of intense action into a writer?
Rob Phayre (smiling):
Oh, nothing special I would say, same as many others… just the pandemic changing the routines of our life.
Over the pandemic I realised that I had picked up some unhealthy habits: too much online gaming, too much social media. I had a bit of a reset and decided to be productive instead. It took a little discipline, and basically an hour a day. But I discovered that I loved the planning and the writing. I must admit, I didn’t enjoy the editing process, but ultimately, I learned a new series of skills. Writing, self-publishing, and web design. Unfortunately, now that I am marketing, I seem to have come full circle and had to pick up my social media use again!
I trust that the public and maybe also the professional documenting the phenomenon of Piracy appreciate your decision.
Have you got any more stories to tell?
Rob Phayre (smiling):
Lots! I have started my next book already and plan to release it before Christmas. This one is called Jungle Heist and it’s based on my experience working in the Jungle in West Africa. I spent several months living in the Jungle and had the idea for the story nearly 20 years ago! It’s the next book in the Response Files series and includes many of the same characters as “The Ransom Drop”.
About the Author
Rob Phayre spent 17 years living in Africa and specialised in the delivery of ransoms to Somali pirates. He and his teams successfully resolved a large number of maritime hostage situations using an innovative solution, dropping millions of dollars by parachute to the pirates at sea. Rob has written a thrilling fictional account of one such drop blending excitement with reality. His novel explores the origins of Somali piracy and the horrific impacts on the crews that were held and tortured for months on end.
More information about the book and the author on:
The pictures are listed in the order of apparition:
The cover picture “Ransom Drop Cover with Chute” was provided by Mr. Phayre and it also the picture on the cover “The Ransom Drop” book.
The picture of Mr. Phayre with his helicopter was provided by himself
“Clan Liaison” picture was provided by Mr. Phayre
“Somalian Piracy Threat Map”
Image Courtesy: Arun Ganesh, National Institute of Design Bangalore,
SOMALIA-UNREST-PIRACY (Somali on the seashore)
linyu_gdufs @ flickr.com
Photo made on January 7, 2010 shows an armed Somali pirate along the coastline while the Greek cargo ship, MV Filitsa, is seen anchored just off the shores of Hobyo town in northeastern Somalia where its being held by pirates.
Protection from Somali pirates (Protection measures damaged)
Darren Puttock @ flickr.com
Protection from Somali pirates
Merchant vessel alongside Djibouti, Djibouti with anti-piracy measures in place.
It's International “Talk Like a Pirate” Day (Pirate and grounded fishing vessel)
R Kurtz @ flickr.com
It's International Talk Like a Pirate Day! I get the feeling people would rather just rock eyepatches / fake parrots & make ARRRRR puns than break out those Rosetta Stones & learn some Mandarin / Somali / Malaysian.
Skiff preparing for launch
EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Somalia - Operation Atalanta @ flickr.com
HSwMS Carlskrona´s helicopter observes a skiff being launched from the coast - April 2013
The “Profile photo” was provided by Mr. Phayre
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