April 8, 2009:
Pirates attack the US-flagged Maersk Alabama 400 miles east of Mogadishu. The Captain of the Maersk, Richard Phillips, orders his crew of 20 to lock themselves in their quarters, and then Phillips surrenders himself to the pirates. The crew overpowers one of the pirates and ties him up. The crew then attempts to trade the captured pirate for the captain’s return. The crew releases the pirate, but the pirates then refuse to release the captain.
The pirates take Captain Phillips and one of the lifeboats from the Maersk (an enclosed vessel designed to carry 30 people on the open ocean with food and water for 10 days) and begin a standoff.
The destroyer USS Bainbridge is dispatched to the area on April 8 and arrives early April 9.
April 9, 2009:
Standoff. The pirates hold Phillips in the lifeboat and want to negotiate a ransom: two million dollars and safe passage to Somalia. The USS Bainbridge maintains itself a few hundred yards from the lifeboat. A P3 Orion surveillance plane keeps an eye on the lifeboat.
While negotiating for a ransom, four more vessels operated by pirates leave Somalia and head towards the lifeboat. These four vessels carry hostages from previous piracy and the pirates are using them as shields. The strategy appears to be to get Phillips onto land to hide him and give the pirates more leverage to negotiate a ransom.
Captain Phillips attempts to escape from the pirates but is recaptured.
Standoff continues. The lifeboat is running out of fuel.
The lifeboat has run out of fuel. Without fuel, it is at the mercy of the waves. The USS Bainbridge offers to tow the lifeboat to calmer waters. The lifeboat is pulled behind the USS Bainbridge by a 75 yard line.
The pirate who had been overpowered by the crew needs medical attention for his hand. He transfers to the USS Bainbridge to get medical attention and to directly negotiate a ransom.
(7:19 pm, after sunset) Navy SEALS on the USS Bainbridge use sniper rifles and kill the remaining three pirates in the lifeboat. Two pirates had exposed their head and shoulders outside the lifeboat. The third was visible through a window. Captain Phillips is rescued.
Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the pirate den of Gaan, said “in the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate for the killings of our men.”
Piracy in Somalia started in the 1990′s when the country fell into civil war. In 2008 there were 111 attempted hijacking attempts resulting in 42 hijackings. Somali pirates received about 150 million dollars in ransoms in 2008.
Deaths related to Somali Piracy, from 2005 to 2009.
military (a member of any nation’s military force): 2
pirates (somali based pirates): 16
civilian crews (any crew member of a hijacked ship): 3 (total), 1 (after ransom was not paid), 1 (during pirate boarding), 1 (during rescue attempt)
Somali pirates have attacked ships hundreds of miles off the coast, creating a patrol area that is simply too large for a military navy to “occupy”. Approximately 20,000 cargo ships travel through the Gulf of Aden each year. The East African Seafarers’ Association estimates that there are at least five pirate gangs and a total of 1,000 armed men. In 4 years of piracy, 2 civilian crew members have been killed by pirates.
The pirates operate off the coast of Somalia in small fishing boats. They “fish” by day and if a target presents itself, they attempt to attack and board it. They often work with multiple boats and sometimes with a “mother ship”.
Navy patrols: Combined Task Force 150, whose mission includes preventing piracy off the Horn of Africa, currently has 15 ships from a number of different countries patroling the waters off Somalia.
But the sheer number of potential targets (20,000 ships per year) makes it impossible to assign an escort ship to each tanker or freighter in the area.
Weapons embargo: There has been a general and complete arms embargo against Somalia since 1992.
Arming private ships for self defense:
A total of 150 million dollars in ransom was paid to Somali pirates in 2008. The insurance rates for shipping companies would far exceed that amount if 20,000 ships all carried civilian crews with only basic training in using firearms in combat.
Also, with only 2 civilians being killed by pirates in 4 years, taking 20,000 ships and arming their crews of 20 to 40 with firearms will create a lot of potential for accidental deaths far bigger than the threat it is trying to counter. The cure should not be worse than the disease.
Lastly, the legal issues around firearms on civilian craft are that weapons must be legal at both ports. Generally the universally legally approved weapon for civilian ships is a shotgun, which has a much shorter ranger than an AK47 rifle and RPG (weapon of choice for Somali pirates). One could get around this by disarming freighters in local waters and arming them only in international waters, but this does not solve the problem of minimally trained civilians numbering in the tens of thousands with firearms.
Intelligence and Special Operations:
With a relatively small number of pirates, it may be possible to identify the pirates through a methodical collection of intelligence and then use military force against these individuals.
This would essentially be similar in approach to the US “War On Drugs”, except on a much smaller scale. That’s not exactly a good thing: The Mexican Drug war has been going since 2006, has involved tens of thousands of military personel, hundreds of thousands of drug smugglers, killed about ten-thousand people, arrested about 45,000 people. Just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean it is neccessarily easier.
The Somali pirates might be more of a comparison to the Taliban operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are about 10,000 hard-core Taliban operating among the millions of Pashtun. The key difference is that while Taliban are driven by religious ideology, the Somali pirates are driven by profit. And while you can’t bomb someone into changing their ideology, you can bomb someone to the point that it isn’t profitable for them to operate as a pirate any more.
The problem then is avoiding civilian deaths. Since the pirates present themselves as “fishermen”, they are, at first glance, indistinguishable from the many fishing vessels operating off the coast.