John Steed: The hostage hunter who freed 191 captives
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Decades later, after a career in the British Army, the Sandhurst-trained former Colonel in the Royal Corps of Signals would look back ruefully on his childhood games as he found himself face to face with deadly modern-day pirates operating off the east coast of Africa. During the Somali piracy crisis, from 2008 to 2012, some 2,000 captives were taken. Three ships in particular – from Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan – were hijacked and their crews abandoned to their fate by their employers who could, or would, not pay ransoms. In a bid to force the owners’ hands, captives were beaten, tortured, executed in cold blood and starved to death.
By now in his sixties and suffering a heart condition, Steed, a retired military attaché living in Nairobi, Kenya, launched a private mission to rescue their hostages after learning of the inaction of their governments and shipping companies.
With no experience in hostage negotiations and no money behind him, he had to raise the ransom cash from scratch, running the operation from his spare room and ferrying million-dollar ransom payments around in the boot of his car.
Friends warned him that the high-stakes game of hostage negotiations was not for the faint-hearted – words that came to haunt him when, just weeks into his mission, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack – before returning to finish the task.
Now Steed’s remarkable tale has been told in a thrilling new book, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, by journalist Colin Freeman.
While the plight of middle-aged British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, freed in 2010 after a 13-month ordeal and a reputed £600,000 ransom, was well publicised, Steed specialised in helping hostages the world ignored, men he calls the “forgotten ones”.
Half-starved sailors, often from third world countries, were tortured and held for years because their families couldn’t afford ransoms and their governments couldn’t care less about them. And it was a slow process. Steed spent years securing the release of terrified hostages – eventually helping to secure the freedom of 191 people.
When piracy was at its peak in 2012, some 700 sailors from around the world were being held on 30 ships off Somalia.
Setting the scene, Steed, 65, tells the Daily Express: “There was a growing bunch of hostages who were getting left behind because of unscrupulous ship owners or because, putting it bluntly, countries didn’t care about their own crewmen.
“It was never our intention to get involved in negotiations in the early days but it became obvious that a lot of guys were never going to be released.
“We had to try and convince the pirates to let them go on the basis there was never going to be any ransom.
“Some of these guys were badly tortured, beaten and starved in some cases. If the pirates fed their goats then maybe the hostages got fed. If there was no food for the goats, the hostages didn’t get fed. That was the reality of it.”
The fate of 23 mixed nationality crewmen of the cargo ship Albedo was typical. Seized on November 26, 2010, the unfortunate vessel and her crew had been languishing just off the coast of Somalia until 2012 before there was a partial breakthrough.
Captain Jawaid Khan’s daughter Mishal, who’d studied journalism in London, helped raise a ransom in Pakistan to save him and other Pakistani crew members, which bore fruit in August of that year when seven men returned to their native country.
But the fate of 16 remaining crew was grim. One had already been murdered by the pirates and then the vessel, in a poor state of repair, sank in the summer of 2013.
Eleven pirates drowned along with four hostages while the others were rescued by another impounded vessel.
Eventually, the Albedo’s surviving hostages were taken ashore to the town of Camara and held by armed guards.
At this point, Steed became involved in the negotiations, but soon found himself in a Catch-22 situation, having to play devil’s advocate with hostages’ lives while trying to avoid crossing the UN red-line of not paying ransoms.
It was during these tense times that he suffered a heart rupture. Despite doctors telling him to take it easy, Steed returned to the mission, calling on the expertise of Leslie Edwards, a professional negotiator who had previously worked on piracy cases for maritime insurance firms.
“In the end the only solution was to pay off the pirate commander,” he admits now. Between Steed and HFW, a London law firm specialising in piracy with a vast array of contacts in the shipping industry, they managed to raise around $200,000. But it was not enough to pay what the pirates had come to expect and negotiations continued.
A mobile phone had been smuggled to one of the hostages, Aman Kumar, who had the delicate task of befriending his captors.
Playing the nice guy was especially hard for Aman because one of his Indian crew mates had been shot dead on the Albedo and his body placed in the ship’s freezer, where it lies to this day after the ship sank.
Aman won their confidence by chewing khat, a plant popular in East Africa that gives users a high, with his captors.
During one khat session he told the lead pirate negotiator: “Why don’t you take the $200,000 for yourself? Cut all the others out of the deal. Just help us escape. Do a secret deal with Mr Leslie for the money.”
It was a stroke of genius. The commander agreed to pocket the cash and supply sleeping pills to spike the guards’ food. Once they had escaped their snoozing captors, Steed would arrange for them to be collected at a rendezvous point where they would be driven to safety.
But on the night of the break for freedom, the sleeping drugs didn’t work and so everyone was stood down. However, a second attempt a few weeks later was successful but Steed, who had not been told in advance, was left scrambling to catch up.
“I suddenly got a call from Aman in the middle of the night and he said, ‘We’re free’,” says Steed. “In polite company I could not tell you what I said to him in reply. The plan had worked but we had to stand up an operation quickly to get them away.
“A very good friend of mine found them in the middle of nowhere and got them out in case they were spotted. When I eventually got to see them on a lonely airstrip in Somalia it was an incredibly emotional moment. I knew everything about them because we’d spoken so much on the phone but to see them was overwhelming. Some of them were in a pretty desperate state, very thin, but their smiles were wide as they were just so glad to see us.
“All the calls, all the late nights for months and months had paid off.”
The pirate commander Ali Jabeen initially seemed to have escaped the suspicion of his fellow thugs. But months later he was shot in the Somali capital Mogadishu, possibly because of his double-dealing.
But rather than being hailed by the UN, Steed was invited to what was referred to as a “no coffee” meeting. “They terminated their engagement with the hostage programme,” he recalls. “The UN didn’t want to be associated with the paying of ransoms to people which I sort of understood.”
But in the case of the Albedo, there had been limited options. Any attempt to secure the hostages with a military operation would probably have involved a bloodbath with hostages and captors killed.
“I don’t care who I have to deal with,” says Steed. “All I care about is getting the hostages out and back to their families.”
He also helped free the crews of two other hijacked cargo ships. Somali piracy is virtually over now as the majority of merchant ships sailing anywhere near the East coast of Africa employ armed security to deter pirates.
Steed, now a full-time maritime security consultant, helped secure the release of Iranian hostages in 2019. They were the last of the merchant sailors taken at sea and he was delighted to close that chapter of his life.
He says: “It’s still pretty dangerous out here but the kidnappings are on land. An Italian nurse who was kidnapped in Kenya and taken to Somalia was freed last year. She converted to Islam before she came out.
“Now I’m trying to help with the kidnapping of a German nurse and two Cuban doctors who are still being held.
“The pirate kingpins are still around but they’ve moved into other areas, such as smuggling and running guns for [Islamic terror group] Al-Shabaab.”
Divorced and now remarried to a Kenyan, Rose, who has helped welcome and repatriate hostages, Steed hopes one day they can retire to the peace and tranquillity of Cornwall, where he has a home on the beautiful Helford River, not far from Frenchman’s Creek.
From then on, the only pirates he wants to encounter would be in the pages of a Daphne du Maurier novel.
Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea: The Mission To Rescue The Hostages The World Forgot by Colin Freeman (Icon Books, £16.99) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order online via www.expressbookshop.co.uk
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