There may be no official playbook for dealing with piracy, but in interviews with AOL News, those involved in the settlements describe a hidden world of money drops, white-knuckle negotiations and ethical dilemmas.
That conclusion -- the safe release of the crew, ship and cargo -- is not as simple as just paying money, according to Harris. "The negotiation with the pirates is one of the simplest issues, when it comes down to it," he said, adding that negotiations are often about ensuring captured crews have access to food and medicine, making sure their families are looked after, and that all the governments and their agencies are dealt with appropriately.
When pirates take over a ship, the first order of business is to subdue and contain the crew, moving them to a central location. Then as quickly as possible they will take the ship to a central port, where there may be as many as 30 other hijacked ships moored.
Once secured, they typically have the ship's master call the ship's owner to alert them they've been hijacked. At that point, ship owners will typically bring in consultants to help advise and handle the negotiations.
"If it's confirmed the ship is hijacked, the victimized shipping company calls us and we deploy," says Jack Cloonan, a retired FBI special agent who now heads the special risks team for Red24, a security assistance company that has also been involved in piracy negotiations.
For those involved in trying to secure the ship's release, the months-long negotiation process can be frustrating: Demands might be all over the map, and it's often hard to tell who is actually in charge. According to Cloonan, pirates will often threaten to destroy cargo, or they will perform mock executions of the crew.
"They know how to apply pressure," he said.
The money that ship owners are forced to pay to secure the release of cargo and crew are driving another part of the industry: insurance policies to cover the ransom payments. "Premiums themselves have been a roller coaster," said Charlie Matheson, who handles kidnap and ransom policies at Jardine Lloyd Thompson Ltd., one of the largest ship insurers. "They started high, came down, and now they're moving back up again."
These days, ship owners typically take out a $5 million policy, according to Matheson.
Even once a ransom sum is negotiated, there are legal issues to contend with for those involved. Many countries, including the United States, have laws prohibiting financial support for terrorist groups, which would cover ransoms. Though the Somali pirates are traditionally viewed as criminals rather than terrorists, the anti-terrorism laws continue to be a concern for all involved in ransom payments.
"It's a difficult area," Matheson said, adding that ransom policies are set up to avoid that issue. "[Kidnap and ransom] are policies of reimbursement, so insurers don't pay the ransom directly, they reimburse the ship owner."
Though many aspects of the negotiations might be unpredictable, the one thing pirates hadn't done -- at least until recently -- is kill hostages. In February, four Americans aboard a pirated yacht were killed by their captors.
Cloonan said those killings will likely complicate future negotiations with pirates. "It's not a good day for anybody," he said. "[The pirates'] brand has been ruined."