In November of last year, I wrote an article about the pirates of Somalia. Since then, things had not got noticeably better, until today, 12 April. Indeed, from the standpoint of the United States, things had got worse. On 8 April, one of the very few U.S. flag freighters still plying international waters, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked as it was carrying relief supplies to Africa. Although the unarmed officers and crew managed to overwhelm the pirates, the pirates were able to take Captain Richard Phillips hostage. Captain Phillips is understood to have been the first U.S. citizen taken by pirates since 1804. Then, the U.S. Navy responded by defeating the Barbary pirates off the northern coast of what is now Libya, and the U.S. Marines stormed the shores of Tripoli.
Between 8 April and 12 April, Captain Phillips had been floating around in the Indian Ocean in one of the Maersk Alabama's lifeboats with four pirates, drifting toward the coast of Somalia. The Maersk Alabama, with an 18-person armed security detail on board continued to her port of destination, Mombasa, where she arrived on 11 April. I have read nothing suggesting why an armed security detail was not on board the Maersk Alabama when she sailed toward an increasingly popular pirate playground. For the reasons stated previously, she should have been so protected, then.
Soon after the unsuccessful hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, several U.S. warships arrived to assist her. At some point, Captain Phillips managed to jump into the water from the lifeboat where he was held captive and attempted to swim to safety on the Navy vessel. The pirates apparently fired at him and he was returned to custody. At some later point, a small boat from the Navy vessel approached the lifeboat for reasons which are unclear. It was fired upon and returned to the Navy vessel without returning fire. Then, on 12 April, close to the coast of Somalia,
Capt Phillips was freed in what appeared to be a swift firefight.
Reports say he jumped overboard for a second time, and the pirates were shot and killed before they could take action to get him back.
US forces apparently took advantage of the fact one of the pirates was negotiating on the USS Bainbridge when the incident happened.
The surviving pirate is now in US military custody, and could face trial in the United States. If convicted, he could be punished by life in prison. A Justice Department spokesman stated, "The Justice Department will be reviewing the evidence and other issues to determine whether to seek prosecution in the United States." It has been reported that President Obama gave the go ahead for the rescue and, apparently, for the use of firepower to accomplish it.
Until then, the powers that be were apparently trying, with excruciating patience, to figure out what to do. The pirates, meanwhile, put on a good front.
Somalia's Islamist insurgent movement al Shabaab, on Washington's list of terrorist organizations, lambasted the international naval patrols aimed at keeping ships safe.
"You are the ones who are the pirates. Leave our waters. You will be defeated," said a spokesman. The group denies it has links with the pirates, most of whom used to be poor fishermen.
It should be noted that the Maersk Alabama was attacked some 350 miles off shore in the Indian Ocean, in what are presumably international rather than Somalian waters.
Soon after the unsuccessful hijacking attempt, the FBI started a criminal investigation. It was reported that
The FBI investigation is being run out of New York because the office there oversees cases involving U.S. citizens in Africa. Other field offices take the lead depending on where in the world the crime occurs.
The FBI has a legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and has agents elsewhere in Africa to assist the investigation.
Whether charges ever get filed depends on how the standoff plays out. If the pirates are captured at sea, it will be much easier for U.S. authorities to prosecute.