April 10th, 2009
02:34 PM ET

Pirates raising the stakes

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/africa/04/10/somalia.u.s.ship/art.alva.maersk.jpg caption="Attackers hijacked the Maersk Alabama, shown here, formerly known as the Alva Maersk."]

David McKenzie
CNN Africa Correspondent

I have been covering Somali piracy for over a year, sailed with the USS Shoup patrolling the waters off Somalia searching for bands of marauders, and interviewed merchant sailors who had been held for months.

But nothing compares to this.

Pirates brazenly attacking a giant US flagged container ship off the coast of Somalia carrying food aid. In the ensuing fight the crew took back the ship, but the pirates made off with their captain in a lifeboat.

In his desperation to escape from his Somali Pirate captors, Captain Richard Phillips tried to escape from pirates on Thursday night by diving off the lifeboat where he was being held to swimming for the nearby US warship, said U.S. officials. The pirates hauled him back.

It was a brave attempt to get loose from his captors who are now trying to spirit him to the lawless Somali shore, according to a source well-connected to the Somali pirate scourge.

“The pirates have at least three hijacked boats heading towards the scene, ”the source told me, “that means that as many as four hijacked vessels carrying more than 50 hostages are heading towards the lifeboat.”

The pirates’ strategy is to use these boats as a human shield and to provide cover for dash to the mainland, he said.

Piracy has been around the years, but this incident raised the stakes. First, the pirates took on an American flagged ship with American sailors in a region patrolled predominately by US warships. Second, there is a new administration in charge in Washington and they can’t be seen as doing nothing. Though President Obama has so far refused to comment.

Until now, nothing is precisely what the Navy has been doing once ships or individuals are taken hostage by pirates. They feel it is the safest option.

The coalition Navy that takes on pirates-dubbed CTF-151-has a strict policy. If a boat is under attack and they are in the vicinity then they will intervene. If pirates successfully take a ship then they will ‘observe’ and ‘monitor’ the boat, but they will not intervene. There is too much risk to the hostages, they say. In ships with particularly precious cargo, such as the MV Faina, a hijacked boat packed with weapons, they will encircle the ship to ensure that the cargo doesn’t get to the lawless mainland of Somalia.

Hostage situations can be dangerous. In a rescue operation of a hijacked yacht today off the Somali coast, a French hostage and two pirates died, according to the French president’s office. Four hostages were freed, including one child. The French military carried out the operation.

I have witnessed the French forces completing a classified drill to free hostages off the coast of Djibouti. And though their operations and training are impressive, anything can go wrong out at sea.

There have also been some reporting that suggests that it can be legally complicated taking on a ship. This is not the case. Piracy is covered by international law and well worn precedent. The act of piracy is considered a “crime against humanity” and any military vessel can take on pirates on a ship they have hijacked and they can be tried in any court “in good standing”. Both America and the UK have signed agreements to have pirates tried in Kenyan courts.

There is also several UN security council resolutions that allow for the coalition forces to strike against pirates both in international and Somali waters and a special resolution allowing them to follow pirates “in hot pursuit” onto the mainland.

But most analysts feel that they are unlikely to do so. The “black hawk down” incident of the early nineties has made western forces very wary of putting boots on the ground in Somalia. And the pirates know this. They will try to get Captain Phillips to shore as soon as possible. Barring this, they could transfer him to another ship with hostages, further complicating the possibilities for the FBI or the US Navy.

Pirates are after one thing and one thing only: money. They haven’t generally harmed hostages-in fact there is a whole industry on the shores of Somalia to raise animals to feed hostages and keep them relatively healthy during long ransom negotiations. Money is usually paid by the shipping company and it can run into the millions of dollars.

And this should be a small comfort to the family of Richard Phillips and to the families of so many others held hostage off the coast of Somalia tonight.

But until ransoms stop, piracy will continue unabated.

Filed under: David McKenzie • Pirates
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Rick, Indiana

    This is just to funny, 4 Muslim terrorist that dont even have the education of a 1st grader holding the US Navy at bay..Unbelievable!!!

    April 10, 2009 at 4:58 pm |
  2. Paul

    As the others have said this is true terrorism, they need to be dealt with very swiftly and with tremendous force. These types of people will not respond to negotiations, they will keep doing it until they see that their actions will be punished immediately. Do not arrest and try them this is a joke, eliminate them with force. They are Holding the USA and world as hostages and laughing at our inability to protect our citizens.

    April 10, 2009 at 4:41 pm |
  3. Tim, Manton,Michigan

    I am amazed that with all the advanced technology that our US warships must have on board, that they wasnt able to act immediately when Captain Phillips jumped overboard in his attempt to flea to saftey. If I am reading the article correctly, Mr.Phillips was being viewed and it was visable that he was in the water, why then didn't the naval ships open fire on the small vessel and do an immediate rescue. I realize all attempts have to be made to secure the safety of Captain Phillips, but just how safe is he now on board with these hostile pirates? We pray for his safe return. In the future, I have a great idea. Let us pull all our troops out of Iraq, head for Somalia and wipe all these hostile idiots off the face of the earth.

    April 10, 2009 at 3:55 pm |
  4. muna ismail

    So Mr McKenzie what do you think would be the end results if the ransom to pirates stop and then people (hostages) die in the process of getting them free. Just what we are hearing from the French Rescue mission of the Tanit. I do not think stopping ransom and going to all out war with these thugs is a good idea.

    On the other hand if you consider the amount of money paid as ransom over the last 12 months, it is amazing. I think it would cost less than half of that to recruit and train local coast guards in Somalia by private companies who could go into some kind of agreements with the local federal adminstrations/Fiefdoms/Clan areas etc.

    Deploying international navies in the Somali waters isn't working...the game should be won in the Somali way......not conventional/Western way.

    April 10, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  5. Ashton Coleman

    "Pirates" is only a loose name for Terrorists. The US better step up and teach them a lesson... no excuses.

    April 10, 2009 at 3:19 pm |
  6. earle,florida

    As a deterrent,go back in history when the English treated pirates with the upmost of respect. The ships were greeted in all Englands' bustling shipping ports thru-out the high-sea's with decapitated heads soaked in tar,and posted on a long rod,to be fired up at night as a stern warning,"Don't Tread on Me ",yea,that's what they should do! No trials,just lopp-off their slimy heads. Their comes a time in life where defending your soverign rights is a matter of survival,...

    April 10, 2009 at 3:09 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    Its too bad the captain wasn't successful with his escape attempt; that would have made his situation and the situation with the pirates that held him infinitely easier to deal with. As long as ransom is paid I agree this will continue – but also as long as the pirates know other countries will not attack them it will also continue – the chances of success are on the pirate's side right now. At some point unless we can identify an effective negotiation plan, countries may have to attack the pirates and hope they can get the hostages out of the line of fire.

    April 10, 2009 at 2:53 pm |