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Ship’s U.S. Crew Endures Pirate Encounter Off Somali Coast, Captain Held Hostage

April 8, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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Off the Somali coast, pirates hijacked a cargo ship and later held the captain hostage. Brian Jenkins, a specialist in hostage negotiations and adviser to the International Maritime Bureau, examines the situation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story: Pirates off the coast of Somalia hit American targets today. The American crew of a container ship carrying food aid bound for Kenya regained control, but the captain was held hostage on a nearby lifeboat.

And the Associated Press, citing U.S. officials, reported U.S. warships in the area were en route to the scene.

Gwen Ifill has our report.

GWEN IFILL: The 500-foot merchant ship Maersk Alabama, with a crew of 20 Americans, was taken in the Indian Ocean 350 miles off the Somali coast.

The vessel, based in Norfolk, Virginia, was on its way to the Kenyan port of Mombassa with a relief shipment from USAID, the World Food Programme, and other agencies.

Crew members were able to retake control of their ship after about 12 hours under pirate control, according to multiple reports. But the Maersk Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, was not immediately released, according to a member of the crew who spoke to the Associated Press and to CNN.

John Reinhart, the CEO of Maersk Line, Limited — which owns the vessel — said he had received a call saying the crew was safe, but he resisted saying more.

JOHN REINHART, CEO, Maersk Line Limited: Speculation is a dangerous thing when you’re in a fluid environment.

GWEN IFILL: The Maersk Alabama was the sixth ship commandeered just this week by pirates in the lawless waters off the East African coast. A Kenya-based official of the World Food Programme, which was expecting the Alabama’s arrival, said the pirates are less interested in cargo than in the ransom the hostages might bring.

PETER SMERDON, World Food Programme, Kenya: There is sometimes long period of negotiation between the owners and the pirates. And usually in these cases, the crew is not harmed and, after the negotiation, a ransom is paid and the ship and the crew and the cargo are released.

Ship attacked far offshore

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this year, millions in ransom were paid to free two other ships and their crews, one Saudi, one Ukrainian.

The pirates' range has shifted, as a coalition of navies has begun to patrol the waters off the Horn of Africa.

Today's attempted hijacking took place well away from shore and much further south than previous attacks.

JOHN REINHART: What we have is a policy of prevention, and all the crews are trained in security details on how to deal with piracy by way of speed, by the way we operate. But as merchant vessels, we do not carry arms.

GWEN IFILL: John Reinhart said the patrols are not enough.

JOHN REINHART: Obviously, we're dealing with a geography that's so big, the amount of support that's there now is not sufficient. The Navy takes care of U.S. flagged ships, but the area's too big for them to cover with the assets they have deployed right now.

GWEN IFILL: Lieutenant Stephanie Murdock is the spokeswoman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the area. The closest Navy ship to the Maersk Alabama was nearly 350 miles away.

LT. STEPHANIE MURDOCK, Spokeswoman, U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet: The length of the Somali coastline is roughly the same length as the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, so it's a very large amount of space that ships would need to cover, and they can't be everywhere to catch everyone, unfortunately.

Crew regained ship control

Brian Jenkins
The Rand Corporation
[This attack] is typical in terms of vessels being attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. It is atypical in that...the crew managed to regain control of the vessel, except for the one crew member who is still, apparently, held by the pirates.

GWEN IFILL: Today's attack was the 50th so far this year and just the latest in a continuing wave of piracy off the African coast.

For more on today's high-seas developments, we turn to Brian Jenkins. He advises the Rand Corporation and the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy. He's also deputy chairman of the security firm Kroll Associates.

Mr. Jenkins, was what we saw happen today typical of this sort of thing or was it atypical in some way?

BRIAN JENKINS, Senior Adviser, The Rand Corporation: It is typical in terms of vessels being attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. It is atypical in that, this particular case, the crew managed to regain control of the vessel, except for the one crew member who is still, apparently, held by the pirates. That part is unusual.

GWEN IFILL: As much as we have talked about piracy off the coast of East Africa and as much as has considered there in the last several weeks, this is the first time we've seen a U.S.-flagged ship involved in this. Why is that?

BRIAN JENKINS: It is. Well, first of all, a U.S.-flagged ship with U.S. crews are relatively rare. Most vessels fly foreign flags. This one is flying a U.S. flag because it's under contract to deliver U.S. aid and, therefore, according to the rules, also has a U.S. crew.

So U.S. is rarely involved in these, simply because there aren't too many U.S.-flagged vessels.

GWEN IFILL: In other cases when there have been non-U.S.-flagged vessels which have been hijacked, have there been cases where the crews have taken the ship back, as happened today?

BRIAN JENKINS: I don't know -- I can't think of a case where the crew has taken back its own ship. So that part is unusual.

Normally, these pirates come aboard these vessels from small boats that operate from a mother ship. A mother ship will go out several hundred miles to sea and then launch motor boats who will search for prey. And one or several of these boats will then come after some merchant ship.

They are armed with automatic weapons, in some cases with rocket-propelled grenades, whereas the crews are unarmed. So it is more often the case when they are able to board a vessel that they take the crew hostage, and then we enter into negotiations for a ransom.

Government does not negotiate

Brian Jenkins
The Rand Corporation
The United States is not going to pay ransom. This operates the same way as it would if an executive of a corporation were kidnapped in South America or Southeast Asia. It is the company that engages in the negotiations, not the U.S. government.

GWEN IFILL: Since this is a privately owned vessel and not a U.S. government ship, even though it's flying under a U.S. flag, shouldn't the company just pay the ransom the way other ships have and end this?

BRIAN JENKINS: Well, I don't want to talk about the specifics of this case, because it is a situation that is still taking place and anything that anyone can speculate about can really complicate things.

But, you know, in any of these cases, it's not just a matter of paying what the pirates immediately demand. This is a business for them. They will hold hostages for as long as they can in order to get as much money as possible.

So if you were to, say, offer them immediately $10 million, $20 million, they would say, "Well, that's easy. We'd like another $20 million." Until they become convinced that they're not going to get one penny more, they're not going to release that crew.

GWEN IFILL: But this creates a dilemma for governments like the United States, which generally doesn't pay ransom in these cases. If the U.S. Navy were able to get there -- apparently, the closest ship is three days away -- what could they do?

BRIAN JENKINS: Well, again, putting this particular set of circumstances aside, the United States is not going to pay ransom. This operates the same way as it would if an executive of a corporation were kidnapped in South America or Southeast Asia. It is the company that engages in the negotiations, not the U.S. government.

In these particular circumstances, we have, apart from the unusual venue, this is essentially the kind of barricade-and-hostage situation that our police forces in this country deal with all the time, where bank robbers may hold a hostage or a gunman may hold a hostage. And there will be some effort made to bring about the safe return of the hostage and hopefully also bring the pirates to justice.

Possible security precautions

Brian Jenkins
The Rand Corporation
There have been suggestions that the crews should be armed, but generally the ship owners have resisted this. And there are issues about turning a merchant ship into a warship by arming the crew.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming that this is a big, big ship that is being outrun by little dinghies, little boats, as you pointed out, coming from the mother ship, trying to encircle the ship, climbing on board, old-fashioned in its takeover methods, how do you guard against something like this? Certainly just arming the sailors on board wouldn't be enough if someone is brazen enough.

BRIAN JENKINS: Well, there have been suggestions that the crews should be armed, but generally the ship owners have resisted this. And there are issues about turning a merchant ship into a warship by arming the crew.

There have been suggestions that armed security guards should be placed on board rather than arming the crews. Again, that has been resisted.

The ships take protective measures themselves, either by their speed or by maneuvers, a big ship, when it maneuvers and makes sharp turns, can create a huge wake and swells that make it difficult for the little motor boats to approach.

Further things that have been recommended -- in some cases installed -- are vessels have fire hoses that they can use to fend off the attackers. And even to the point of the recommendation that the railings around the ship's deck be electrified, which would prevent the boarding from the small vessels.

So all of those have been recommended, and in some cases, in a few cases, they are in place.

GWEN IFILL: All right, well, we can only hope for the safety of the captain of the ship. Brian Jenkins, thank you so much.

BRIAN JENKINS: Thank you.