Stephen Collett reveals how he negotiated the release of the Rachel and Paul Chandler, British couple kidnapped by Somali pirates
When Rachel Chandler bade her brother farewell before her fateful Indian Ocean yacht trip with her husband Paul, he did his best to laugh his worries off. “Don’t get caught by Somali pirates,” he joked. “Or we’ll have to ransom you out.”
Just six weeks later, the gag turned very sour for all concerned: Paul and Rachel were kidnapped as they sailed from the Seychelles to Tanzania, spending the next 13 months in captivity on the Somali mainland. Meanwhile it fell to brother Stephen Collett to take on the fiendishly difficult task of negotiating, raising and paying the ransom that finally bought their freedom. As well as leaving him not much change out of £500,000, it cost him 13 months of his life, and very nearly his marriage as well.
Which makes it all the remarkable, then, that nearly three years on, Stephen has no worries about waving the pair off on their travels once more. For next month, despite having suffered an ordeal that would make most sailors never leave dry land again, Paul and Rachel will cast off from the Devon port of Dartmouth in their yacht, the Lynn Rival, and resume the round-the-world journey that the pirates interrupted – proof, it would seem, that the sea does indeed get in the blood.
“Some friends think we’re mad and our family are apprehensive, but sailing is our life,” said Rachel, who says it is the only way to really put the kidnap behind her. “We feel guilty that people will worry, but they understand that if we weren’t able to sail we’d be defeated people.”
This time, admittedly, they have reassured their respective families that they will steer well clear of danger. The east African coast is out of bounds, as its pirate gangs remain active and ever more violent; only last week, fellow British hostage Judith Tebbutt told a Kenyan court about how her husband David was shot dead during the abduction last September that led to her being held for seven months. On Friday, four foreign volunteers with a Norwegian aid agency were kidnapped by gunmen at a Kenyan refugee camp on the Somali border.
Instead, the Chandlers will head across the Atlantic to South America, where the only dangers are, er, hurricanes, storms, cocaine smugglers and the other minor hazards of being alone in the middle of a 3,000 mile-wide ocean. Once again, Rachel’s brother simply laughs off his worries.
“Am I concerned?” Stephen wonders aloud. “Yes, but this time I’ll maybe just turn off my phone,” he smiles over coffee at his house in a Suffolk village as he gives The Sunday Telegraph his first ever interview on the behind-the-scenes rescue operation. “Seriously, though, lightning doesn’t strike twice, and they’re not going anywhere near Somalia this time.”
That the Chandlers can head off to sea again is partly down to their families’ equally remarkable refusal to let them pay the ransom money back. While the couple are understood to have given them some of the estimated £100,000 they received for selling their story to a newspaper, their relatives have insisted that they should not try to make up the balance, saying that working to pay off what would still be a very substantial debt would interfere with their psychological recovery.
Indeed, away from the headlines, television interviews and best-selling book that the Chandlers published last year on their experiences, their families are, as Rachel puts it, the “unsung heroes” of the whole affair. But not for much longer. Stephen has recently been working with a team producing a BBC drama loosely based on the Chandler case, but told entirely from the perspective of the hostages’ relatives back home, as they battle with the pirates, Foreign Office bureaucrats – and each other – to raise and pay a ransom. The BBC is keeping details of the drama under wraps for now, but the themes it offers are a gift for any dramatist. It’s easy to say that life is priceless, but what if the only way to save a kidnapped relative is to sell all your worldly wealth, and that of your spouse? What if your spouse thought your relative was reckless in getting kidnapped in the first place and doesn’t want to pay up?
In the BBC drama – which is a fictional treatment – that is apparently how the character based on Stephen’s wife, Chris, reacts. “It’s not how it really was – the money side of it didn’t bother me,” she says. “But I suspect I’ll probably get hate mail anyway.”
Luckily for the Chandlers, the extended family did not have to go around with a begging bowl to raise the cash, nor – contrary to many rumours – was it secretly paid by the British government. Two years before Paul and Rachel were kidnapped, Stephen had sold his farm for a reported £4 million, and made a decision early on that he could shoulder the bulk of any ransom demand. Nonetheless, there were tensions. For a start, members of the family “kidnap committee”, which included Stephen’s brother Aubrey, his sister Sarah, and Paul’s sister Jill (the Chandlers themselves have no children), were not ideally suited for rallying around in a crisis. Stephen was not particularly close to his siblings, and never had been: he saw Rachel and Sarah only occasionally, and was hardly on speaking terms with his brother, Aubrey, whom he’d last seen at his father’s funeral in 1991. When the kidnap committee first convened, there were real fears of personality clashes. While Stephen is reluctant to go into details, and stresses the “amazing” way the family did pull through in the end, he admits it was occasionally “difficult”.
“It never got into open warfare, although it did get difficult at times,” he says. “Sarah was very keen at first that we shouldn’t pay the pirates a penny if we could avoid it, as it would simply finance future piracy, while Jill was always a bit more willing than the rest of us to raise our offers. At the same time, there was also pressure to keep the ransom down because we felt that Paul and Rachel would be obligated to repay us.”
That, though, was in the early days when the family, naive to pirate ways, thought they might get away with paying no more than $20,000. The final bill – $440,000 (£280,000) for the ransom, plus an estimated £125,000 in costs – was nearly twenty times that. Still, Stephen feels that in the end, he struck a reasonable deal: the pirates’ initial demands had been ten times more again. Not bad for a retired Suffolk farmer, whose main previous experience of negotiating was for farm machinery.
“To be honest, the pirates were no harder to negotiate with than some farmers. It’s like buying a car, really, they have got a product you want and vice versa, and it’s just a case of coming to an agreement. It is difficult, though, when you’re talking about your sister’s life. But there was never any question of not paying. You just have to swallow it. Thankfully, our children are hopefully not relying on our inheritances.”
Instead, the hardest part was not the money, but simply negotiating and closing the deal, which Stephen had to do with virtually no help whatsoever from the Government. Current British law does not stop people paying ransoms to free relatives kidnapped abroad: what it does do, though, is prevent any British official “facilitating” the payment in any way. Which, as Stephen learned the hard way, is something HMG takes very literally indeed. When, for example, two Scotland Yard hostage experts came up to assist him, they told him informally that the only way he was going to see his sister alive again was to pay a ransom. At the same time, they also said that if he made any preparation for payment while in their presence, their help would be pulled immediately.
Worse still was a “headmistressy” Foreign Office woman, who summoned them into London during the first few days. “It was absolutely pointless,” says Stephen, who is now writing his own book about the kidnapping. “We asked what we should be doing, and they told us nothing whatsoever, not even advice on dealing with the media. She left me feeling like a schoolboy who’d done something wrong.”
In the end, the expertise they needed came via independent approaches from a specialist private security company and a firm of maritime solicitors, Holman Fenwick Willan, both with experience in dealing with piracy cases. The solicitors worked for free, sparing Stephen what he estimates would have been a £500,000 legal bill. But while the security advisor was able to drill him in negotiation tactics, the hard graft was still down to the family. Every crackly phone call with “Ali”, the pirate negotiator, had to be painstakingly transcribed so that his faltering English could be deciphered, a task that took several hours per day alone. Stephen often worked from 4am till midnight, fighting the urge to scream out loud at times, becoming short-tempered and often breaking into tears in front of his wife, Chris. Two months in, she feared they were about to break-up.
“It felt like he’d just left me,” she says. “I was worried about him getting involved with relatives that he didn’t get on with, and we had some terrible rows. Then I realised I didn’t want to throw our marriage away, and that it was better to just try and support him.”
Occasionally, there were comforting moments – a handwritten private message from the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and a touching letter of support from a poor Indian fisherman who Paul and Rachel had met during their travels. The fisherman appealed “in the name of Allah” for the pirates to release Paul and Rachel, as they had helped him buy a new set of nets last year when they passed through southern India.
Other moments, including the well-published reports of the couple being mistreated, were less harrowing than they might have been. “The solicitors gave us a timeline, saying that during the kidnap we would hear first stories about them being ill, then about them being beaten and shot, and so on, all just to scare us,” said Stephen. The time that Rachel was actually beaten – she lost a tooth after being hit with a rifle butt – he describes as “pretty just much a friendly shove by Somali standards”.
Indeed, most of the time, problems came from the most unexpected sources. One day, for example, he got a phone call from his local bank to say he owed them £27,000 in charges for converting the ransom into dollars; luckily, they waived it. On another day, he was verbally abused while out on an errand. “A local man told me that he’d heard I was expecting the government to pay the ransom, and that he knew I had plenty of money and should be ashamed of myself.”
Not much better were some of the people who offered to help, from shadowy Somali “intermediaries” who claimed to have sway with the pirates but who always wanted a “fee” up front, through to dubious mercenary outfits who offered to free the couple by force. At one point, a man who claimed to be from a very wealthy British family was put in touch with Stephen via the Foreign Office, and offered to pay both the ransom and the costs. The would-be philanthropist, who was wheelchair-bound, claimed to have been the victim of a past kidnap attempt himself, and when meeting Stephen, he turned up with two bodyguards. But while his bona fides appeared to check out, he later withdrew his offer for no apparent reason.
“In hindsight, I think he was seriously unbalanced,” says Stephen, who declined to identify the individual. “But he completely hoodwinked us, and I worry he might do it to someone else.”
Indeed, as time dragged on, Stephen worried that Paul and Rachel would be angry for him for taking so long to spring them. One of his transcripts details a terse phone conversation with Paul, where Stephen had to explain to him that since he was being held against his will, he could not legally consent to his own finances to be added to the ransom fund. “Yes, I appreciate that Stephen,” comes Paul’s reply. “But what’s the money going to buy me? A super memorial?”
The toughest part of all, though, was the actual exchange itself, which was as hazardous as doing a major drug deal. First, the $440,000 ransom had to be flown out in cash to Nairobi, where it was at risk both of robbery and confiscation by local officials. Stephen, who says requests for FCO help with the transfer were met with “horror”, had to spend $12,000 hiring ex-SAS men to look after it. He also had to find a pilot who was willing to fly a plane into a Somalia and drop the bag of cash off at an agreed rendezvous point; to check it wouldn’t burst open on impact, the ex-SAS men tested it by throwing it from a high-rise window.
Then, just when things seemed they couldn’t get any harder, they did; having received the cash, the pirates refused to hand over the hostages. Only the unexpected “humanitarian” intervention of Dahir Abdullahi Kadiye, a Somali cabbie from east London, saved the day.
Mr Kadiye got involved after his children saw footage of the couple’s plight on television and told him they were they were ashamed of their fellow countrymen. He flew back to his homeland, and used local clan connections to persuade the gang to hand over the couple over five months later. Unlike other would-be “intermediaries”, he did not demand a penny for his services.
“When we paid the cash and nothing happened, I was absolutely devastated,” recalls Stephen, who suspects a local Somali politician got in the way of the original deal. Quite how Dahir did it, I am not sure, but he didn’t demand any money and we remain very grateful to him.”
And so it was that in that November 2010, nearly 400 days after they went missing, that Stephen finally welcomed Paul and Rachel back to Britain. So how did he feel? Proud? Emotional? Anxious for their mental health? Joke time again.
“A bit annoyed, actually – they came off that plane like they’d just come back from Benidorm,” he grins. “They didn’t look haggard at all! Seriously, though, they were just very thankful for all the work we had done.”
And now, as they head off again, is he tempted to join them on board at all? After all, he has surely paid for his passage already. “To be honest, I have never even seen the Lynn Rival, although I am planning to nip down to Dartmouth just before Paul and Rachel go off. Sailing is not my thing, though – I get too seasick.”
This article was posted by Neptune Maritime Security via telegraph.co.uk. MaritimeSecurity.Asia in cooperation with www.neptunemaritimesecurity.com