The Pirate Negotiator

Danish shipping CEO Per Gullestrup knew how to drive a hard bargain. But when he learned that 12 of his employees were being ransomed by pirates, he faced the most important negotiation of his life.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Now then, we're going to start off today's "Second Skin" episode with a story from a man forced to assume a role that he never saw coming.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Per Gullestrup was the CEO of a Danish shipping firm called the Clipper Group. And on November 8, 2008, he received the kind of news that no CEO of a shipping firm wants to receive.

PER GULLESTRUP: And it was, as I recall, early afternoon on a Friday and one of my colleagues came to my office and said that we've just had an alarm go off from the CEC Future. And then, because we could track the vessel, we could see that the ship was starting to move erratically. And at that point, we knew that something terrible was amiss.

ROSENBERG: The CEC Future was a cargo vessel that had been passing through the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast. And Per soon learned that it had been hijacked successfully by pirates.

GULLESTRUP: You get the first initial shock, and you kind of take that in. And then it was just utter disbelief and frustration because as a ship owner, you find out very, very quickly that you are absolutely alone with this because the cavalry's not coming to the rescue here. You cannot call 911 and then say, hey, my ship was hijacked. Come and help me.

ROSENBERG: Right. So this is not "Captain Phillips."

GULLESTRUP: No. No. I wish I could've called the American Navy when it happened, believe me.

ROSENBERG: But still, Per knew that didn't make him any less responsible for the lives of the hostages. There were 13 crewmembers, mostly Russian, who were now being held ransom. They had never met Per, but he was their boss. And it was his job to get them home.

GULLESTRUP: Because we - we're not sitting there frontline and taking this. It's the crewmembers that are paying the price here. And yeah, we can go home and eat our dinner and turn on the television and go to bed again, but we're not sitting out there taking what they've been taking - because you need to put yourself in the shoes of a seafarer who's being held hostage by 15-year-old Somalis who are crazed on khat with Kalashnikovs, who don't sleep for days on end, who are threatening the crews with all sort of things, sometime even physical abuse.

And this psychological trauma that they experience, the longer that goes on, the bigger the chances that they will not be able to go back to have a normal life.

ROSENBERG: Per's goal was to get his crew back safe and sound as fast as possible, so he hired an outside consultant. That's what most shipping companies do in this kind of situation. And the first thing the consultant did was hire a middleman, a dedicated negotiator that would act as a buffer between them and the pirates. In this case, it's a person we'll only know by his first name, Stephen.

GULLESTRUP: Having a person like him in a situation like this is paramount. If you've never dealt with this before, you're just not prepared for it because you don't want to get emotionally involved in this situation because there's a great risk that you're going to lose your cool. And also, you're going to make mistakes detrimental to the crews that are sitting on the ship.

ROSENBERG: Per already knew of another CEO who had tried to negotiate with the pirates personally, no middleman. And it had dragged out for over two and a half years under terrible conditions, which is why Per had no problem using Stephen, who would be the only person allowed to talk to the pirates directly.

GULLESTRUP: And he'd always do that from his car, and I don't know why exactly he did that, but that's the way he operated. And then he would have a tape recorder with him, and every single conversation would be taped. And then it could be played back to us afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

STEPHEN: Hello?

ALI: Hello. How are you doing, Stephen? This is Ali.

ROSENBERG: These are the recordings from the actual negotiations. The guy Stephen's speaking to, Ali, is the pirates' own middleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

STEPHEN: Hello, Ali. How are you?

ALI: All right. How are you doing?

ROSENBERG: He was the only person allowed to call or receive calls from Stephen. And he was very well spoken, very friendly, very polite.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

STEPHEN: How is the crew?

ALI: They're doing great.

STEPHEN: They are? OK, that's - I'm glad to hear that.

GULLESTRUP: And he introduced himself and said that the pirates would demand - they were demanding $7 million in ransom to release the ship. And could we please think about that and then come back to them once we were ready to pay?

ROSENBERG: And if you're thinking $7 million is a small price to pay for 13 people, well, you're absolutely right. There's just one problem.

GULLESTRUP: It would be easy as a ship owner to just succumb to the first demand that the pirates may come with, but the net result of that would be that they say, oh, yeah, but that was just a down payment we're asking for. And before you know it, you have a situation that escalates.

ROSENBERG: More often than not, agreeing to the pirates' initial asking price would just drag things out even longer and make things much worse for the crew because if you could pay $7 million, who's to say you couldn't pay $10 million or $12 million? And once the pirates knew you were willing to pay that much, there would be nothing stopping them from hijacking more vessels and ransoming more people for even more money in the future.

GULLESTRUP: So in other words, unfortunately, you've got to go through the motions and counter that demand with an equally ridiculously low counteroffer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

STEPHEN: This is Stephen. Our offer is $400,000 U.S.

GULLESTRUP: Almost like buying a used car and give them a feeling that they're actually working for their money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: In regards to the $400,000 they say no, $400,000 is change.

STEPHEN: But $ million, that's a very unrealistic figure.

GULLESTRUP: And it may look strange, and it may look ridiculous, and it may have come across that the ship owner is out there to try and save money for himself, but nothing is further from the truth.

ROSENBERG: And the strategy worked. Within 48 hours, the pirates had already dropped their demand from $7 million to $5 million.

GULLESTRUP: Which is not unusual, right. But not having dealt with this before, I said, wow, I mean, at least that's a couple million dollars closer to a resolution of the problem. And there was professional pride that the - in a sense, that I wanted to bring them home as soon as we could. And we had a goal that we wanted to do it before Christmas, but then it kind of stalled there. And we were going back and forth for weeks on end because the pirates really wouldn't come down on their demands. And we were just at a stalemate.

ROSENBERG: You have this strategy that you have to wait them out, it's like kind of a staring contest.

GULLESTRUP: Yes. The ground rule here is you never make two offers in a row. That is one ground rule that went through the whole thing.

ROSENBERG: But Ali was insisting that Stephen do just that. And the pirates tried a whole bunch of tactics to put pressure on Per's team to get them to make that second offer. They would trash equipment, claim that a hostage was having a nervous breakdown or threaten to remove the entire crew to the Somali mainland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: And that is the truth. That's what exactly they want to do. Are you there?

STEPHEN: I am there. I fully understand. I read him, but we need to go back to this negotiation, and it won't do any good to the crew.

ALI: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Listen, please. You are mistaken by just dragging your feet.

GULLESTRUP: The worst thing was when they called up and said that one of the crew members had had a heart attack because there you have a situation where you have to ask yourself, is this a ploy or is this real? And if it was real, what could we do? You realize that you have very few options, if any, and you are absolutely powerless.

ROSENBERG: To make matters worse, they knew the ship was running out of food and fuel. Food could be brought over from the mainland, but once the vessel ran out of fuel, it would make it much harder to bring the crew home.

GULLESTRUP: It's a waiting game. And during that waiting game, of course, all kind of thoughts goes through your head. And there was point where I even toyed with the idea of, you know, calling the Russian Embassy and then see if they would do a rescue operation, you know, with a SWAT team. But lying in the bed awake at night, that's why these things, they come back and they haunt you, and you think about it.

ROSENBERG: And then how did you feel once Christmas rolled around?

GULLESTRUP: I was very sad because we all want to be with our family at Christmas, and then, still, they were sitting out there. And their next of kin was sitting back in Russia and that's - it's a very - it was a bad situation.

ROSENBERG: But then, just before New Year's, the pirates had finally made a counter offer, $3.2 million. Stephen moved up to one, but then Ali misunderstood. He thought Stephen had said two. And things just went downhill from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: It was $2 million the day before yesterday.

STEPHEN: No, I did not say that. My boss was offered...

ALI: Yes, yes, you said so.

STEPHEN: Well, as I see it, it's your mistake because you're not paying attention to what I'm saying.

ALI: It's not my [bleep] mistake, (unintelligible).

STEPHEN: You know our offer, OK?

ALI: [Bleep] you, Stephen, [bleep] you. You think you screwed me? You did not.

STEPHEN: Listen.

ALI: [Bleep] you, [bleep]. You are a [bleep] white (unintelligible).

GULLESTRUP: And then it was the Friday, the 3 of January, and I was sitting with my wife in our sitting room. And it was 8 at night, and then my mobile phone rings. And I pick it up, and I saw it was a Somali prefix. And the minute I saw that, I knew what it was. I mean, in a split second, I knew who was at the other end of that telephone. And I looked at it for a few seconds, and that's when I decided to take the call. Then the person on the other line said, oh, this is Ali, Mohammed Ali, from the CEC Future. And I think I respond, (unintelligible) yes, yes, I know who you are.

ROSENBERG: But we just had a conversation about, you know, other CEOs who made this decision and really screwed things up for the hostages. What triggered you to pick up?

GULLESTRUP: It was a spur of the moment decision. And I felt very strongly on a psychological level that, I mean, now he finally gotten through to the CEO of the company. And he would do everything in his power not to lose that contact again. So I was very forceful with him that if I was going to spend time on this, that he was not going to do any silly stuff. And, you know, unless you really want to resolve this situation, then don't waste my time.

ROSENBERG: Ali agreed to the new ground rules, and he promised, no more lies, no more fake heart attacks, no more silly stuff.

GULLESTRUP: What happened then is Monday, as I'm in the office with David, he does exactly that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: Hello? Ali?

CAPTAIN: No, no, no. It's the captain.

GULLESTRUP: He gets the captain on the phone, and he has the captain start pleading.

CAPTAIN: Their offer of $2 million was set from the company - was stealing. But please, the pirates do not agree lower than two. They need $2 million and not this Saturday, today on the table by fax.

GULLESTRUP: Yeah I hear what you're saying, Captain, but we...

CAPTAIN: And also, and also, please don't break the deal. Don't break the deal. Otherwise, it can be really dangerous for everybody. I mean, for everybody who's still involved.

GULLESTRUP: And I only saw one way of dealing with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: Listen, Captain. Could I speak to Ali?

CAPTAIN: He cannot talk to you. He cannot talk to you.

GULLESTRUP: OK.

GULLESTRUP: And there I really blew my gasket because that was so obvious what he was trying to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: I will not talk to anybody but Ali, Captain, because what he is doing now is he is trying to use psychological pressure. And I will not accept that. He has one chance to talk to me or we will cut off this line of communication. There will be no more communication with me. Tell him that.

CAPTAIN: You are not a game. If the psychological pressure is coming to mind, it's for me and my crew, yes?

GULLESTRUP: That's right, exactly. I'm sorry, Captain, but you will have to tell Ali if Ali wants to negotiate, he can negotiate with me directly or I will disconnect the phone, and he can call Stephen.

GULLESTRUP: Then the line disconnects, and then when he calls back...

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: Hello?

...We are ready for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: (unintelligible).

GULLESTRUP: I mean, Ali, let me just make this very, very clear. You called me on Friday. You wanted a meaningful conversation. Don't put this kind of crap on me again.

ALI: Per, nobody's throwing crap on you.

GULLESTRUP: No, because I don't appreciate that and you're insulting my intelligence when you're pulling this at me.

And the minute he's contrite...

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: No, no, no. Nobody's playing games with you.

GULLESTRUP: Then you won the battle, right? And then you don't gloat. So let him know, hey, I mean, this is all forgotten. You know, you did a silly move. It didn't work. Let's get on with business.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: We still want to finalize this matter. If it is any help to you, we are already at $1 million. We are prepared to send you a fax where we can offer you $1.2 million, but I will only do that if you think it's worthwhile.

ALI: I'll talk to them.

GULLESTRUP: All right. Thank you, Ali.

ROSENBERG: After that, negotiations moved quickly. And Per actually employed a whole host of strategies. Instead of just making offers, he'd made certain demands of his own - that the ship had enough fuel to return home, that the crew be kept in good health, things Ali had to do to earn Per's trust.

GULLESTRUP: Because I knew he had lived in the states, I tried to use American metaphors.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: I mean, they got a wake up and smell the coffee.

ALI: I know.

GULLESTRUP: And also, in our analysis of Ali, we had a sense that he had high thoughts of himself, and that he was, you know, above the pirates. And so I said, we may as well play along.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: OK. All right. Thank you.

GULLESTRUP: OK, I'll leave it to you, Ali. I'll cross my fingers and hope you can work your magic. Take care.

ALI: OK.

GULLESTRUP: Bye-bye.

ALI: All right, take care.

GULLESTRUP: Then the final negotiation went down 1 o'clock in the morning where he calls me up and say, OK, the pirates are at $1.7. And I kind of go, woo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

ALI: So he will settle at $1.7.

GULLESTRUP: Yes, and that base is going to drop on Wednesday?

ALI: Yes.

GULLESTRUP: And those bases on the ship having enough fuel to get away?

ALI: Yes.

GULLESTRUP: OK.

GULLESTRUP: I mean, this is 70 days in the pressure cooker, and then finally it's all over and it is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

GULLESTRUP: And we're not going to have any nonsense tomorrow morning. This is under control, right?

ALI: No, no, no, no, no. No. No problems here.

GULLESTRUP: OK. All right, Ali. Thank you very much. Let's put this behind us.

ALI: No problem.

GULLESTRUP: OK. We'll talk to you tomorrow. Thank you.

ALI: Bye-bye.

GULLESTRUP: Bye-bye.

GULLESTRUP: And that was the end of it. That was the time when I failed.

ROSENBERG: The negotiations were over, and without even meaning to, Per had actually broken a lot of the rules. He had negotiated with Ali directly. He had lost his cool, and he even made two offers in a row, but it had worked. The crew was going home.

GULLESTRUP: I got up early the next morning, and I drove into the office. And, of course, it's one of those things you never forget because we sent a team to the bank and pick up the ransom, and we bring that into the room. And I walk in and I just remember that - saw that sitting there.

ROSENBERG: Can you describe what you felt when you saw the money?

GULLESTRUP: Disgust. That's the only way I can express that because it can never be seen as a victory. How could it? As I said, we'd been screwed over by a bunch of hoodlums in Somalia that had done, you know, untold things to our colleagues. But certainly we had an end to the misery for our crew of 71 days, and that was the real issue here is that we could tell the master and the crew that now they were coming home.

ROSENBERG: When did you finally get to meet the crew?

GULLESTRUP: I never met the crew, to be honest with you. I met the captain on numerous occasions, but I haven't met the crew. We had people from the company go and meet the crew, but I didn't go myself. And that's one of the regrets I have today is I didn't go myself. I should have.

ROSENBERG: Why didn't you go?

GULLESTRUP: I don't know. To be honest with you, I just always fear of being perceived as being callous or non-emotional. But if you're doing the right thing - you feel you're doing the right thing and you're staying true to yourself, then what else? Maybe it's just me. I don't know.

ROSENBERG: Has any of them ever tried to reach out to you?

GULLESTRUP: A few has, yeah. Not that just that - but they were happy that we had done everything in our power to end this matter. And we had left no stone unturned. But our measure of success after all this is said and done was what would they go back to sea? And would they go back to sea with us? And we hit a hundred on both counts. And that was a confirmation from me that we'd done the right thing.

WASHINGTON: Per Gullestrup retired from the Clipper Group in 2013, but he stayed in contact with Ali and tried to help him get out of the hostage negotiation business. Today, Per helps run Somali Fair Fishing. That's reviving the Somali fishing industry in order to provide a sustainable alternative to piracy. To find out more about this story and the piracy problem, check out two documentaries, "Stolen Seas" on Netflix right now and the British documentary, "The Trouble with Pirates."

That piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg with sound design by Pat Mesiti-Miller.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we're going to say vagina on the radio. And we're going to go undercover, deep undercover without any backup. When SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Second Skin" episode continues, stay tuned.

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