John Steed: The hostage hunter who freed 191 captives | Books | Entertainment
John Steed returned home in Cornwall near the Helford River earlier this month
Decades later, after a career in the British Army, the former Sandhurst-trained Royal Corps of Signals colonel sadly looked back on his childhood games as he came face to face with deadly pirates modern day operating off the east coast of Africa. During the Somali piracy crisis, from 2008 to 2012, some 2,000 prisoners were captured. Three ships in particular – from Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan – were hijacked and their crews abandoned by their employers who were either able or unwilling to pay ransoms. In an attempt to force the hands of the owners, the captives were beaten, tortured, executed in cold blood and starved to death.
Now in his sixties and suffering from heart disease, Steed, a retired military attaché living in Nairobi, Kenya, has launched a private mission to rescue their hostages after learning of inaction from their governments and shipping companies. .
With no experience in hostage negotiations and no money behind him, he had to collect the ransom from scratch, directing the operation from his spare bedroom and channeling million dollar ransom payments into the trunk 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 after starting his mission, he suffered a nearly heart attack. fatal – before returning to complete the task.
Now, Steed’s remarkable story has been told in an exciting 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, of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, released in 2010 after a 13-month ordeal and a deemed ransom of £ 600,000, was well publicized, Steed specialized in l help to the hostages of the world ignored, the men he calls the “forgotten”.
Half-starved seafarers, often from Third World countries, were tortured and detained for years because their families could not afford ransoms and their governments laughed at them. And it was a slow process. Steed has spent years securing the release of terrified hostages – ultimately helping secure the freedom of 191 people.
John, in the front row in a light blue shirt, with the hostages after their daring escape
When piracy was at its peak in 2012, some 700 sailors from around the world were detained on 30 ships off Somalia.
Setting the stage, Steed, 65, told the Daily Express: “There were a growing number of hostages who were being left behind because of unscrupulous ship owners or because, frankly speaking, countries were failing. did not care about their own crew members.
“We never intended to get involved in the negotiations at the start, but it became clear that a lot of the guys were never going to be released.
“We had to try to convince the pirates to let them go because there would never be a ransom.
“Some of these guys have been severely tortured, beaten and in some cases starved. If the pirates fed their goats, then maybe the hostages were fed. If there was no food for the goats, the hostages did not feed. It was the reality. of it. “
The fate of 23 crewmembers of mixed nationality on the cargo ship Albedo was typical. Seized on November 26, 2010, the unfortunate ship and her crew languished just off the Somali coast until 2012 before a partial breakthrough.
Captain Jawaid Khan’s daughter Mishal, who had studied journalism in London, helped raise a ransom in Pakistan to save him and other Pakistani crew members, which paid off in August of the same year when seven men returned to their country of origin.
Men in Nairobi
But the fate of the remaining 16 crew members was grim. One had already been assassinated by pirates and then the ship, in poor condition, sank in the summer of 2013.
Eleven pirates drowned with four hostages while the rest were rescued by another seized ship.
Eventually, the surviving hostages from Albedo were taken ashore in the town of Camara and detained by armed guards.
At this point, Steed got involved in the negotiations, but quickly found himself in a dead end, having to play devil’s advocate with the lives of the hostages while trying to avoid crossing the red line of l ‘UN not to pay ransoms.
It was during these tense times that he suffered a heart failure. Although medics told him to relax, Steed returned to the mission, calling on the expertise of Leslie Edwards, a professional negotiator who had previously worked on piracy cases for marine insurance companies.
“In the end, the only solution was to pay the pirate commander,” he now admits. Between Steed and HFW, a London hacking law firm with a wide range 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 cell phone had been smuggled to one of the hostages, Aman Kumar, who had the delicate task of befriending his captors.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea is now available
Playing the nice boy was particularly difficult for Aman as one of his Indian teammates had been gunned down on the Albedo and his body placed in the ship’s freezer, where he still lies today after the ship sank.
Aman earned their trust by chewing khat, a popular plant in East Africa that gives users a high, along with its captors.
During a khat session, he told the chief pirate negotiator, “Why don’t you take the $ 200,000 for yourself? Cut everyone else out of the deal. Just help us get out of the way. Get out of the way. a secret deal with Mr. Leslie for the money. “
It was a stroke of genius. The commander agreed to pocket the money and provide sleeping pills to feed the guards. Once they had escaped their sleeping captors, Steed would arrange for them to be picked up at a meeting point where they would be taken to safety.
But on the night of the freedom break, the sleeping pills didn’t work, so everyone was fired. However, a second attempt a few weeks later was successful, but Steed, who had not been warned in advance, had to struggle to catch up.
“I suddenly got a call from Aman in the middle of the night and he said, ‘We’re free,’” Steed says. “In polite company, I couldn’t tell you what I said to him in response. The plan had worked but we had to set up an operation quickly to get them away.
“A very good friend of mine found them in the middle of nowhere and took them out in case they were spotted. When I finally got to see them on a secluded airstrip in Somalia, it was a moment incredibly touching. I knew all about them because we had talked so much on the phone but seeing them was overwhelming, some of them were in quite a desperate state, very skinny, but their smiles were wide as they were so happy to see us .
“All the calls, all the late nights for months and months had paid off.”
Pirate Commander Ali Jabeen initially appeared to have escaped the suspicion of his rogue comrades. But months later, he was shot dead in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, possibly because of his double trafficking.
But rather than being greeted by the UN, Steed was invited to what has been called a “coffee-free” meeting. “They ended their engagement with the hostage program,” he recalls. “The UN didn’t want to be associated with paying people ransoms, which I kind of understood.”
But in the case of the Albedo, the options were limited. Any attempt to secure the hostages with a military operation would likely have involved a bloodbath with hostages and kidnappers killed.
“I don’t care who I’m dealing with,” Steed says. “All I care about is getting the hostages out and returning them to their families.”
He also helped free the crews of two other hijacked cargo ships. Somali piracy is virtually over now that the majority of merchant ships sailing anywhere near the east coast of Africa employ armed security to deter pirates.
Steed in his former role of British military attaché
Steed, now a full-time maritime security consultant, helped free the Iranian hostages in 2019. They were the last of the merchant seamen taken at sea and he was delighted to close this chapter in his life.
He said, “It’s still quite dangerous here but the kidnappings are on the ground. An Italian nurse who was kidnapped in Kenya and taken to Somalia was released last year. She converted to Islam before going out.
“I am now trying to help with the kidnapping of a German nurse and two Cuban doctors who are still detained.
“The pirates are still there, but they have moved to other areas, such as smuggling and the use of weapons for [Islamic terror group] Al-Shabaab. “
Divorced and now remarried to a Kenyan, Rose, who helped welcome and repatriate the hostages, Steed hopes one day to be able to retire to the peace and quiet of Cornwall, where he has a home on the beautiful Helford River, not far from Frenchman’s Creek.
From now on, the only pirates he wishes to meet would be in the pages of a novel by Daphné du Maurier.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Mission to Save the Hostages The Forgotten World 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