Mon. Apr 15th, 2024
alert-–-how-a-farmer-from-suffolk,-who’d-only-ever-haggled-over-the-price-of-a-cow,-masterminded-a-350,000-ransom-to-release-his-sister-from-somali-pirates:-part-two-of-jenny-kleeman’s-gripping-book-asks:-what-is-the-monetary-value-of-human-life?Alert – How a farmer from Suffolk, who’d only ever haggled over the price of a cow, masterminded a £350,000 ransom to release his sister from Somali pirates: Part two of JENNY KLEEMAN’s gripping book asks: What is the monetary value of human life?

Stephen Collett, a recently retired farmer, and Chris, his wife of 30 years, were in bed just before 7am on a Friday in October 2009 when the phone rang. It was his youngest sister, Sarah. ‘I knew it was something important,’ he recalls, ‘because she hardly ever rings us.’

Sarah was calling because the emergency beacon on the ocean-going yacht belonging to their sister Rachel and her husband Paul Chandler had been activated. She had been up all night trying to get hold of them, without success.

The Chandlers, then aged 58 and 55, had taken early retirement and were sailing around the world. They were due to be somewhere near the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, 800 miles off the coast of Africa. They had told Stephen about having the alarm on board just a few weeks ago, when they were back in the UK temporarily for a family wedding. ‘We actually discussed the risks, and they said there were very little,’ Stephen tells me. ‘They laughed it off. Their biggest concern was being run down in the night by a supertanker on autopilot.’

The Colletts and the Chandlers lived very different lives and were not close. The Colletts lived in Suffolk, farmed and started a family; Rachel and Paul moved to Tunbridge Wells, chose not to have children and preferred renovating their yacht, the Lynn Rival. The two couples had never fallen out, but they had little in common.

Nonetheless, Stephen took over the job of trying to find the sister he barely saw. He began by checking their blog, but they hadn’t posted anything new. Their satellite phone was off so he left posts on yachting forums asking them to get in touch.

After Paul and Rachel Chandler were captured, Rachel lost a tooth when one of the gangsters hit her in the face with a rifle butt

After Paul and Rachel Chandler were captured, Rachel lost a tooth when one of the gangsters hit her in the face with a rifle butt

Stephen Collett took over the job of trying to find the sister he barely saw

Stephen Collett took over the job of trying to find the sister he barely saw

He then rang the British High Commissioner in the Seychelles, who reckoned the Chandlers must have activated the beacon by accident, because it had stopped after 20 minutes. But he promised to send out an air and sea search for the Lynn Rival all the same.

Later that day, the Foreign Office contacted them to say the search had found nothing but they shouldn’t worry; in all likelihood, the Chandlers’ satellite phone was simply out of range. Three days later, the Foreign Office rang again with news: they’d heard from journalists that the Chandlers had been kidnapped by Somali pirates.

Tens of thousands of people are kidnapped every year. When they are held for ransom (rather than used as human shields by bank robbers, or as political bargaining chips by terrorists), they are being sold in a transaction, and a price is put on their lives.

Hostages from overseas can be the most expensive. Stephen was about to be thrust into a complex and dangerous world that was beyond anything he had experienced. As a farmer he had negotiated prices for crops and cattle. But over the next year he would find himself bargaining for two human lives – his sister and his brother-in-law. He felt he had no choice. They were family.

But successful ransom negotiations require a kind of perversity. You must turn against your instincts, your nature, your rationality, your humanity. Expressions of love and concern result in further pain and harm.

To get your loved one back safe as soon as possible, you have to be prepared to wait, to turn down offers of fundraising; you have to resist the siren call of both your head and your heart. You must block your ears, shut your eyes and hold your nerve. If you are not disciplined and as a result overpay, you put future hostages at further risk.

Stephen very quickly found himself making headlines. Reporters at ITN, the ITV news organisation, were first on the case of the missing yachties, having had a tip from someone in Somalia that a British couple had been taken hostage on their boat. They’d worked out it had to be the Chandlers from online chatter on yachting forums. They invited Stephen to the studio in London, where they managed to get through to the Chandlers on the phone. Stephen spoke to them. ‘They were surrounded by guards and they were terrified,’ he recalls. ‘They didn’t know what was happening. There were tears. I was in tears too.’

No demands were made in that first call. There wasn’t even any conversation with the people holding the Chandlers hostage. But the situation was obviously very grave.

Somali pirates had been responsible for 164 kidnappings at sea from January to September 2009, and ransom payments had become enormous. A Saudi-owned supertanker had been released only after a payment of $3million (£2.37million) was made in cash.

Paul and Rachel were no oil barons. They lived frugally, pouring most of what they had into their yacht. They didn’t have kidnap insurance. They apparently turned it down, for the sake of about £15. Determined to get the message out that the pirates had targeted the wrong people, Stephen gave interviews to the BBC, Sky and Channel 4.

The Chandlers, then aged 58 and 55, had taken early retirement and were sailing around the world

The Chandlers, then aged 58 and 55, had taken early retirement and were sailing around the world

That, he was quickly told by experts in kidnap negotiation, was a big mistake. Raising the Chandlers’ public profile had increased the price of their lives, a firm of solicitors specialising in maritime law warned him. He needed to shut up. A deal would need to be carefully managed – and for this he was put in touch with an expert negotiator. The next question was how much cash the family could raise for the release of Paul and Rachel. The irony was that for the first time in his life Stephen had money.

He and Chris had spent their adult lives working seven days a week, never taking holidays, struggling with a huge mortgage, then sold the farm in Suffolk for twice what they were expecting and managed to retire to their dream home with a swimming pool in the garden. The small fortune they had left was supposed to be their nest egg. Some members of their wider family were dead against paying anything at all. ‘There was some resentment that my sister and her husband had put themselves in this situation,’ Stephen says carefully. ‘I wouldn’t have liked to have to sell my house,’ Chris tells me. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted it to go that far.’

It’s British government policy to have nothing to do with ransom payments, but help is provided. Two Metropolitan Police officers drove up to Suffolk to give Stephen a voice recorder and advice on what to say when the kidnappers called. He was to tell them he was just a poor farmer and paying a ransom was out of the question. He must emphasise that the Chandlers were innocent, poor sailors caught up in a situation that was far beyond them.

His home office became the negotiation nerve centre. He stuck Post-it notes around his computer monitor telling him what to say, in what order, and reminding him to press record whenever the calls came in. It was very slow going in the first few weeks. The contact in Somalia – Omar – called most days but he was barely able to speak English. On other occasions, it would be Paul or Rachel themselves on the line, begging Stephen to sell their house in Tunbridge Wells for them, raid their bank accounts, do anything to come up with cash to set them free. Stephen had to tell them that wasn’t possible: they were under duress, so the banks wouldn’t release their money.

Just before Christmas a clearly upset Paul told Stephen that he and Rachel had been split up and he didn’t know where she was. He was very depressed, running out of contact lens solution and worried he would soon be unable to see. Rachel lost a tooth after one of the gangsters hit her in the face with a rifle butt. A video of the Chandlers came in to Channel 4 News: topless guards with defiantly uncovered faces point AK-47s at their heads as Rachel pleads: ‘We ask our government and the people of Britain and our family to do whatever they can to enter into negotiations with these people to buy back our lives.’

Paul says: ‘I have no doubt they will not hesitate to kill us within a week or so if there is no response.’ If this was supposed to spur the family into action, it had the opposite effect. Although obviously distressed in the video, the Chandlers looked clean, fed and physically very well. Their family had been told at the beginning that the kidnappers would put Rachel’s and Paul’s needs before their own. ‘This is because if they die, they are worth nothing.’

But it was becoming increasingly clear that a ransom of some kind would have to be paid. Even the police conceded this, though they warned that as soon as money was discussed, they’d have to withdraw. And when the family decided they would indeed have to make a payment, the police followed procedure and bowed out.

The secretive ‘expert’ they’d been introduced to took over. He advised them for free.

At first, the family thought they might ‘get away’ with paying $100,000 for Rachel and Paul, but they were prepared to aim for a figure as high as $400,000 if they had to, Stephen says. His initial offer was $20,000. Omar demanded $10 million.

Following the expert’s guidance to the letter, Stephen stuck at $20,000. The price went down to $6 million. Stephen moved to $90,000.The transcripts of these discussions make for desperate reading. ‘We cannot negotiate in millions, only thousands. Do you understand? There is no insurance, there is no government, just me and the money that I can get for you,’ he said in one mid-January call. ‘I’m offering you $90,000 to make a quick finish.’

By late January Omar had been replaced by a man called Ali, a former New York taxi driver with English to match. They began to make progress. Ali went down to $500,000. Stephen went up to $165,000. Ali went back up to $800,000. Then $1.5 million. Then $2 million. Stephen stood firm at $165,000. Ali went down to $750,000. Stephen went up to $235,000. ‘It would go in stages, and suddenly you’d lose contact for a fortnight or more. You’d think: What’s going on?’

Stephen, the gentlest of men, found himself having to play hard ball with a ruthless pirate. ‘You have to be quite brave,’ he told me, ‘and say, “Well, if they die, they die”, that sort of thing.’

It was very stressful. Chris remembers fearing her husband would have a stroke, he was under so much pressure.

‘He was very difficult to live with – impatient, angry.’ Finally, after eight months of captivity and bargaining, the price of Paul and Rachel Chandler’s lives was settled at $440,000 (£348,000).

The initial plan was for Chris to collect the cash in carrier bags from Barclays bank in Bury St Edmunds, but then they realised it would be tricky to send such vast wodges of banknotes over to Africa. So they transferred the money from their bank to one in Nairobi and hired two security guards to fly over to withdraw it.

The guards chartered a plane and pilot in Nairobi, put the cash in a holdall they were confident would withstand the impact of being dropped from the air, and readied themselves for the handover, on June 14, 2010 at 4am UK time. Ali had promised that Rachel and Paul would be released once the pirates had counted the money, but after the drop, his phone went dead. Five days later, Stephen received a text: ‘You know well they are not taking 440 and you refuse an other deel so this is not real money pelas pay money now quik. The pracy refuse to take that money now so they say we need 1,000,000 $.’

Stephen still finds it hard to talk about that text. He shakes his head, despair etched across his face. Only later was he to discover what had gone wrong. The reason the Chandlers weren’t freed after the ransom was paid was that, despite all his efforts to appear poor, the Somali kidnappers believed there was more money they could squeeze out of him.

A few days earlier, Stephen had asked for permission to use the airfield in the town of Adado to make the drop.

The mayor had demanded a ‘security fee’ of $20,000, which Stephen haggled down to $18,000. Stephen thinks the mayor then told the pirates there was money to spare, and they should ask for more.

‘Did you offer more money?’ I ask. ‘No,’ says Stephen. ‘Ali contacted us once every fortnight for months. We said, “We haven’t got any more.”’

The stalemate only ended after the intervention of a former minicab driver from Leytonstone. Dahir Abdullahi Kadiye got in touch with Stephen through the Foreign Office.

He’d been granted political asylum in Britain in 1997. His children had told him they were ashamed to go to school after seeing the Chandlers’ appeal for help on the news. He was on a trip to Somalia and wanted to put things right, and he didn’t want payment.

Just over a year after Rachel and Paul were taken captive, Dahir rang and said he was hoping to get them out the next morning. And he did. At 2.50am on November 14, 2010 – first light in Somalia – Stephen was woken up by a call from Dahir’s phone.

It was Rachel. She was in the back of a car with Paul and Dahir, on their way to Nairobi. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ she managed to say. To this day, no one knows exactly what Dahir did to secure the Chandlers’ release. There’s no doubt that keeping two people in captivity for 388 days was an expensive business: there was rice, spaghetti, goats, tea and sugar to pay for; guards to watch them; and khat to keep the guards happy.

Paul estimated it must have cost the gang nearly £12,000 a month to hold them hostage. It came to the point where it was cheaper to let them go.

Reports abounded at the time that the kidnappers had received more money; that the Somali community in the UK must have made a contribution, or that an extra payment might have come from the UK’s development budget. ‘That’s rubbish,’ Chris says. ‘Nothing came from the Government.’

READ MORE: How much it REALLY costs to hire a hitman: As this author found through her fascinating interviews with deadly mafia assassins, it’s less than you might think…

 

‘We didn’t expect anything from the Government either,’ she adds. ‘Why should the hard-up taxpayer pay for a well-off couple who’d taken early retirement? We were always prepared to pay.’

Kidnap for ransom is a harrowing, traumatising crime to fall victim to, yet a remarkably safe one: 97 per cent of kidnap victims will return home alive when professional crisis responders are involved in negotiations, and the 3 per cent that don’t tend to have existing medical conditions or have bungled attempts at escape.

The Chandlers were unlucky: most negotiations are typically resolved in far less time than the year and 23 days they endured.

This is largely because the advent of kidnap insurance policies has formalised the process of negotiating ransoms.

More than three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies whose staff have reason to make repeated trips to dangerous places now have this type of cover, though it only works if the existence of the policy is kept secret from the kidnappers.

But kidnap remains big business. Rates are on the rise, and so are ransom demands. The average demand in 2021 was $368,901, 43 per cent higher than in 2019. The highest recorded single demand in 2021 was a whopping $77.3 million. This was disclosed by Control Risks, the crisis response consultancy firm. But while they are prepared to reveal the figure, they won’t disclose who it was for or where. What’s more, that average global figure is likely to be on the low side: they won’t put anything on their website that will give the enemy a useful going rate.

Control Risks will have geo-specific data of the going rate and average duration of kidnap in every part of the world, but they can never make it public. The opacity is what makes it work; if the numbers were explicit, they would evaporate.

But it’s a ‘tricky’ market to operate in, I am told by Anja Shortland, Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London, an expert in how economics works when the normal rules do not apply – where one party is a legal entity and the other is connected to the underworld. Kidnaps, stolen art, antiquities and ransomware (malicious software that holds your computer or network hostage until you pay up) are her stock in trade.

The Chandlers had told Rachel's brother Stephen Collett about having an alarm on board their ocean-going yacht

The Chandlers had told Rachel’s brother Stephen Collett about having an alarm on board their ocean-going yacht

The crucial factor in making a deal, she says, is that both sides recognise the reputational damage to future deals if it all goes wrong. This is an incentive to both parties to play fair. It’s also why it’s in the interest of kidnappers to release hostages alive. Dead hostages have no value.

The one advantage the negotiators have is that the kidnappers don’t know how far those paying the ransom will go, where their price ceiling is. So they will ‘squeeze the towel dry’, depending on who they’re negotiating with – whether it’s an insurance company, a corporation or just an individual, someone’s spouse or relative, as in the case of the Chandlers. If governments are involved – and not all states take the UK line of refusing to pay – that towel could be a bath sheet rather than just a damp rag.

For the Chandlers, it probably ended as well as it ever could. After their release, the Royal Navy found the Lynn Rival and returned it to the UK. Their therapy for getting over the trauma of their year-long ordeal in the hands of kidnappers was to restore the yacht and set off again.

They eventually sold their story (to the Daily Mail) and got a book deal. They used the money to pay back Stephen and Chris. ‘At the end of the day, we weren’t far out of pocket,’ Stephen says.

As for the kidnap, it went unpunished.

To date, none of the 30-strong gang who took them hostage has ever been brought to justice for the hell they put Paul and Rachel through – not to mention Stephen and Chris back in England.

Adapted from The Price of Life by Jenny Kleeman (Pan Macmillan, £18.99). © Jenny Kleeman 2024.

To order a copy for £17.09 (offer valid to March 9, 2024; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

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