Somali pirate ransoms ‘could fund terrorists’

A senior Nato adviser on piracy has criticised the British government for failing to investigate adequately whether ransom payments to Somali pirates fund Islamist groups including al-Qaeda.

Lord Jopling, who also wrote a report into money laundering and terrorism for the House of Lords, has warned that paying off pirates could encourage terrorist groups into further acts of piracy.

His comments come after the demand for $7-million for the safe return of Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple taken hostage nine days ago as they travelled from the Seychelles to Tanzania. Almost 300 pirate attacks were logged worldwide in 2008 alone.

At present, British law allows ship owners to pay ransoms for the release of hijacked vessels. But if the government established a link between the pirates and terrorist groups, the payment of ransoms would be considered as funding terrorism and be banned by law.

Jopling, the author of the Nato report The Growing Threat Of Piracy, said that many people suspect terrorist groups are behind the capture of dozens of ships off the Horn of Africa. He called on the government to put “more effort” into finding out whether there is a link to terrorism. “There is as yet no evidence that money goes to terrorists, but given all of the rumours that al-Qaeda has active cells in Somalia, it would not be of huge surprise if there is a connection there. We will not find out until the government takes the initiative with other interested states to find out and look at the magnitude of the sums involved and where the money is going. It is of concern.”

The Home Office promised in June to investigate possible links between pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Somali terrorist movements such as al-Shabab, widely thought to be part of al-Qaeda. In July, the House of Lords’ European Union committee published a report on terrorism funding that voiced concern over the lack of information about a pirate-terrorist connection. In Washington, the Treasury Department asked the Office of Foreign Assets Control to investigate how al-Shabab is financed.

The initiatives have stirred some concern in the City, headquarters of London’s leading law firms and maritime insurance groups. Ship owners who pay ransoms that are reimbursed by insurance groups are not obliged to file a suspicious activity report with the Serious and Organised Crime Agency.

This summer the Lords sought to change the law by authorising courts to start proceedings against companies paying ransoms without telling the British authorities. But the Home Office said in a response to the Lords report last month “it isn’t up to the government” to issue rules on suspicious activity reports.

The empty yacht belonging to the Chandlers, who are from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, was found during counter-piracy operations. The couple are being held on the Kota Wajar container ship, which is registered in Singapore and owned by one of the world’s largest shipping companies, Pacific International Lines. The company is believed to be talking to the pirates to negotiate a ransom that will include the Kota Wajar, which has also been seized by the pirates, and its crew as well as the Chandlers.

The ransom demand for the return of the couple was made on Friday in a call to the BBC in which the pirates’ representative blamed Nato operations in the area for destroying the local economy. “Nato operations have destroyed a lot of equipment belonging to poor fishermen … they illegally transfer the fishermen to their own prisons and prisons of other [foreign] countries.”

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office confirmed it had employed a negotiator and said: “We are aware of reports that a ransom demand of $7-million has been made. HMG’s policy remains clear: We will not make substantive concessions to hostage takers, including the payment of ransoms.”

The brother of Rachel Chandler, Stephen Collett, said the Foreign Office was doing an “excellent” job. –

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