Richard Phillips, captain of the American-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama, was rescued when Navy sharpshooters on the U.S. destroyer Bainbridge killed the three pirates holding him hostage in small motorized lifeboat. Phillips had surrendered himself to the pirates last Wednesday, when the ship was hijacked in the Indian Ocean, in order to save his crew.
President Barack Obama authorized the use of force against the pirates Saturday if the captain’s life was in imminent danger. After naval personnel observed a pirate pointing a gun at Phillips and obtained clear shots at all three, the order for force was given, according to news agency accounts. Special Forces then boarded the lifeboat, where they found Phillips tied up, but unharmed.
A fourth pirate surrendered to U.S. forces over the weekend in order receive medical treatment for an injury he sustained during the hijacking. Justice Department officials are weighing options for his prosecution, either by charging him in the United States or turning him over to Kenya, where dozens of pirates have been prosecuted in recent years.
“He’s in military custody right now,” FBI spokesman John Miller told the AP. “That will change as this becomes more of a criminal issue than a military issue.” Piracy and hostage-taking carry life sentences under U.S. law.
On Monday, President Obama said the United States would seek to stop the threat of piracy.”I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks,” he said while speaking at a Transportation Department event.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told students and faculty at an event at the Marine Corps War College Monday that “all I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem,” according to the Associated Press.
Separately, militant Islamist insurgents fired mortars toward U.S. congressman Donald Payne’s aircraft as he left Somalia on Monday after a rare visit by a U.S. politician to the Horn of Africa nation. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat, was unharmed.
The episode has renewed the debate over whether crews on commercial vessels should be armed, particularly when traveling in dangerous waters such as those off the coast of East Africa. But ship owners are largely opposed to the idea, concerned about their own liability, the safety of sailors, and the potential that armed crews will only aggravate already tense situations at sea.
Others believe that better law enforcement ashore is needed and that armed crews will always be outgunned by pirates flush with ransom money. “If we arm our crews with light machine guns, they can probably buy heavy machine guns,” Arthur Bowring, the managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, told the New York Times. “And if we buy light rocket launchers, they can buy heavy ones.”
Other analysts are adamant that the threat of piracy cannot be solved with naval efforts alone. “Any comprehensive solution to this problem has to address instability ashore,” says Derek Reveron, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. “[But] there is no effective government or security institutions [in Somalia] that can stop this wave of ship hijackings,” adding that armed groups onshore have been very effective at putting out-of-work fisherman with knowledge of local waters at work as pirates.
The operation Sunday has provoked calls by pirates for future attacks on U.S. ships. “We will intensify our attacks even reaching very far away from Somalia waters, and next time we get American citizens… they [should] expect no mercy from us,” one pirate told the Associated Press by telephone.
While the U.S. captain was rescued unharmed with no ransom paid, other hijackings and attempted rescues over the weekend were a reminder that all such operations do not end as well. A French yacht owner was killed on Friday, along with several of the Somali pirates holding passengers hostage, when French commandos stormed the vessel in the waters off Somalia. And on Saturday, pirates hijacked an Italian-flagged tugboat off the coast of northern Somalia with 16 crew members aboard. The Italian foreign and defense ministries are still working to free the crew.
While the international community can work to make it harder for pirate vessels to stalk the coast of Somalia, preventing attacks may prove impossible. “No country or naval coalitions has the capacity to monitor the Gulf of Aden, an area four times the size of France,” says Reveron. “Vast amounts of intelligence are required to locate pirates. Unless there is an attack, warships are unlikely to find pirate ships, which do not stand out from other fishing vessels,” adding that the threat comes at time when naval budgets to a fraction of their former strength.