Maersk Alabama rescue renews debate about dealing with piracy

Following the successful rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, USS Bainbridge tows the lifeboat where Phillips was held by the pirates to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Megan E. Sindelar

The failed pirate attack against Maersk Alabama threatens to raise the stakes for the criminal gangs and for the governments who vow to protect the shipping lanes.

The mid-April maritime standoff was the first pirate attack against a U.S.-flagged ship since the Barbary Pirates era. Amid the spate of hijackings off Somalia since last year, the Maersk Alabama case was unusual in that the merchant crew fought back and stymied an attempt to take control of the vessel. The U.S. Navy shot and killed three pirates in rescuing hostage Capt. Richard Phillips.

Ship owners have generally told crews to use nonviolent means to prevent pirates from boarding. If pirates did reach the bridge, crews were urged to cooperate to avoid bloodshed while awaiting ransom.

James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp., warns against fighting fire with fire. Greenwich, Conn.-based Industrial Shipping’s tanker MV Biscaglia was held hostage in Somalia for 58 days before ransom was paid and the vessel and 28 crew released unharmed.

“I hope it does not escalate the level of violence on the attack side or on the defense side, inadvertently making mariners and seafarers who are civilians into combatants, because this is not what they are trained to do," Christodoulou said.

“When you look at the situation of the Maersk Alabama, one can’t argue with success, but can you repeat it?" he said.

Four pirates climbed onto Maersk Alabama on April 8 in the Indian Ocean while the 509-foot vessel transported relief supplies to Kenya. When the intruders stormed the wheelhouse, Phillips radioed the engine room: “The bridge is compromised!" The chief engineer immediately switched the propulsion system from “bridge control" to “engine room control," and many of the 21 crew locked themselves in the engine compartment. The pirates couldn’t operate the vessel.

Crew were able to grab one pirate, beat him, stab his hand with an ice pick and tie him up. Phillips offered himself as a hostage. The crew agreed to trade the captured pirate for their captain. During a would-be exchange, the pirates reneged and fled with Phillips in a 28-foot encapsulated lifeboat. After a four-day standoff involving the destroyer USS Bainbridge, Navy snipers fatally shot three pirates, freeing Phillips. News of the operation riveted U.S. television audiences. While the crew and Navy sailors were hailed as heroes, the maritime industry debated the future impact.

Capt. Phillips meets Lt. Cmdr. David Fowler, the commanding officer of USS Bainbridge and the commander of the rescue operation. Courtesy U.S. Navy

“The crew of the Maersk Alabama took pretty aggressive actions, either courageous or foolhardy, depending on your point of view," said Robert Grenier, chairman for global security consulting at Kroll Inc., whose officials advise the International Maritime Bureau.

“It’s a bit of a game-changer," Grenier said. “The willingness of the U.S. Navy to fire on suspected pirates will probably affect as well the rules of engagement that other international forces will employ."

Raymond Brown, a retired Coast Guard captain who is director of intelligence for Total Security Services International, said he expects the industry to make few adjustments in Maersk Alabama’s wake.

“I do not think the international community will change quickly," Brown said. “The cost has not yet affected ship owners and insurance companies to the point where they wish to reroute or arm ships. They will ask for naval support."

Lawrence Rutkowski, a New York maritime lawyer, doubts commercial ships would stock firearms, for reasons of liability and practicality.

“If you start arming crew who aren’t necessarily trained in armaments, what’s going to happen? Are we going to wage gun battles? Would we really be helping the crews at the end of the day? I’m fearful we would not," said Rutkowski, who advised Industrial Shipping during the Biscaglia negotiations.

Mariners should carefully consider whether disabling the ship might anger the pirates and escalate violence, Rutkowski said.

“I can’t imagine they’re going to be terribly pleased by it," he said. “The more desperate you make someone, the more likely they are going to do something you and they regret."

Notwithstanding recent threatening pirate statements, the prospect of facing military force may deter hijack attacks in the future, Brown said. After armed intervention by the United States and France, “Italy ruled out military rescue of hostages, which they never should have publicized," Brown said. “Showing the bad guys your play book is stupid."

Brown expressed concern about the 300 still held captive — and the lack of outrage at their plight. “The Filipino and Indonesian and Eastern European seamen being held have few prominent advocates," Brown said. “The only real lesson is that one should think twice about attacking American ships and seamen."

By Professional Mariner Staff