Information from Voice of America, the American Forces Press Service, and the Navy News Service was used to assemble this article.
MAERSK ALABAMA ATTACKED
On 8 April, the container ship Maersk Alabama, which was delivering five thousand tons of food aid to three African countries, came under attack from pirates as it neared its destination port of Mombasa, Kenya. The crew was able to re-take the ship – but the pirates were able to take the captain of the ship, 53-year-old Richard Phillips, hostage, retreating to a lifeboat from the vessel they had tried to seize.
“Captain Phillips’ brave crew of civilian mariners fought back and took one of the pirates hostage and took their ship back,” said Vice Admiral William Gortney, commander of the United States Fifth Fleet.
It was the first time since the 19th century that an American vessel had been seized by pirates, and the first time that one had been hijacked off the coast of East Africa. The piracy epidemic off Somalia had finally touched the United States. How had it happened? The Maersk Alabama was 300 miles off the coast when the pirates boarded.
ONGOING, CHANGING EPIDEMIC
Jim Wilson, Middle East correspondent for Fairplay International Shipping News, told VOA News in an interview before the hostage crisis was resolved, “The Indian Ocean is just truly a vast sea space. If you’re 300 nautical miles away, then there’s not a lot of help from a warship. Not even an air asset, like a helicopter, is [of] much value at that distance.”
Indeed, all too often, Wilson added, “They actually take them by surprise. One of the best and first lines of defense is looking out the window. In this day of satellites and GPS and all kinds of technological gizmos, there’s no real substitute for the human…eyeball. Look out the window.”
Describing a Somali pirate attack for VOA, he added, “They come up fast and they’ll do one of two things. Either they’ll throw a grappling hook over (and) climb up. Or…they’ll start shooting at you. Now, a lot of sailors will simply stop when they’re confronted with pirates wielding AK-47s and RPGs.”
U.S. NAVY RESPONSE
The first American vessel to respond, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96), was on the scene the next day, touching off a four-day standoff with the four pirates in the lifeboat, which had run out of gas.
USS Bainbridge was part of Combined Task Force 151, a U.S. Navy force sent to combat piracy off the Somali coast. Task Force 151’s task is immense – it is responsible for over 1.1 million square miles of ocean. With 12 to 16 ships from a variety of navies, including the Royal Navy and the Royal Danish Navy, the task is daunting – and in the case of the Maersk Alabama, it meant help was 300 miles away when the pirates struck. In fact, Admiral Gortney stated in a U.S. Navy release prior to the Maersk Alabama standoff that over 60 ships would be needed to properly secure the area.
Bainbridge was only the first response. Additional naval vessels included the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), which had not only helicopters that could carry Marines or Navy SEALs but also some of the finest medical facilities afloat.
FAILED ESCAPE ATTEMPT
The drama was heightened when Captain Phillips attempted to escape his captors on 10 April by jumping into the sea and swimming to the nearby Bainbridge. The pirates recaptured him and brought him back aboard the lifeboat.
The pirates began to move other seized vessels toward the area as well, including a German container ship. However, the American vessels would arrive soon enough to set the stage for the dramatic rescue.
SEALS TAKE THE SHOTS
As the evening of 12 April (local time) approached, tensions came to a head. The pirates were demanding a $2 million ransom and safe passage back to Somalia in return for the safe return of Phillips, now bound in the lifeboat, which was being towed by the Bainbridge to calmer waters due to worsening weather conditions.
“While working throughout the negotiation process tonight, the on-scene commander from the Bainbridge made the decision that the Captain’s life was in immediate danger and the three pirates were killed,” Gortney said. One other pirate, wounded when the crew had taken back the ship, had earlier surrendered to the U.S. Navy.
The instrument for saving Phillips: Navy SEALs on the fantail, who had earlier parachuted into the ocean and transferred to Bainbridge, took out the pirates with precision rifle shots from 25 meters when one pirate pointed an AK-47 at the captain – bringing about the end of the five-day-long standoff in a matter of seconds.
FRENCH TAKE DOWN PIRATES
The day USS Bainbridge reached the Maersk Alabama, the French had acted to end a similar standoff that had reached its sixth day. A yacht had been seized on 4 April, and five hostages had been taken by five pirates.
When negotiations broke down, the French stormed the seized yacht, saving four of the five hostages and killing two of the five pirates (the other three were captured). It was the third time that the French had used force to free hostages as opposed to paying any ransom.
FOR THE FUTURE
While the new Somali government welcomed the successful rescue, the pirates gained a new ally as a result of the actions: Islamic militants, including the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabab, hailed the four pirates as Somali national heroes. Some of the pirate gangs also claim that they are acting to prevent illegal fishing and dumping. Other pirates have now threatened to kill hostages. Indeed, pirate tactics had been ramping up prior to the Maersk Alabama incident. Insurgents also attacked the plane carrying Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ) with a mortar.
“I understand now that from naval sources and also security risk management sources that the pirates are now approaching vessels…targeting the bridges…deliberately shooting out the windows in an attempt to intimidate the crew. And they’ve now taken to the habit of firing rocket propelled grenades…directly into the accommodation bloc (crew quarters). The idea there is to start a fire. If a fire is started on board a ship it’s exceptionally dangerous for the crew. So they have to stop the defense of the ship, which means deploying fire hoses…and put the fire out. When they do that, the pirates come on board,” Fairplay analyst Jim Wilson told Voice of America.
But ultimately, the solution may not come from efforts at sea. “[T]he ultimate solution for piracy is on land. Piracy around the world stems from activity where there is lawlessness, lack of governance, economic instability; things of that nature,” said Vice Admiral Gortney in a press conference held after the rescue.