Somali Pirate Attack on the American Ship Maersk Alabama

(April 2009)


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Somali Pirate Attack on the American Ship Maersk Alabama

(April 8-12, 2009)



Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips shakes hands with Lt. Cmdr. David Fowler, Executive Officer of the USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces off the coast of Somalia on Sunday April 12, 2009

Somalia Map

Somali pirates seized an American-flagged ship, the Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean on April 8, 2009. The ship's crew included 20 American citizens, who were initially taken hostage by their attackers. The crew managed to re-take their ship, but their captain, Richard Phillips, remained as a hostage as the pirates escaped into a lifeboat. Within hours, the American warship, the USS Bainbridge, was on the scene, though the limits of American naval power became painfully obvious as the large warship seemed unable to faciliate a quick rescue of the American hostage.

(Ironically, it should be noted that the USS Bainbridge is not named for Bainbridge Island in Washington State, but is named for William Bainbridge, an American naval hero who was at one point a hostage of the Barbary pirates after his ship was hijacked.)

By the second day of the encounter, the Navy called in FBI hostage negotiators from Quantico, Virginia, to aid in the negotiotions with the Somali pirates.

 President Obama was informed of the Alabama's seizure as he returned from his first trip to Europe and Iraq as President. National Security officials (and, we assume, President Obama and Vice-President Biden), were briefed in the White House Situation room on the Somali Pirate crisis.

On April 10, 2009, Captain Phillips attempted to escape from his pirate captors, but within seconds of entering the water, the pirates fired their weapons as a warning, and Phillips had to return to the enclosed lifeboat with his captors.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, Captain Phillips was rescued when U.S. Navy SEALS shot three of his captors, killing all three.

The pirate attack on the American ship (reportedly the first such attack since the Barbary pirate wars of the 1800s) provoked serious debate about the limits of American power, and the percieved need for a naval force able to battle in counterinsurgency mode against pirates and other "assymetrical" threats on the high seas. Analysts envision American foes such as al-Qaida and Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Al-Qaida has already undertaken lethal naval attacks on the U.S. Navy, and it is not hard to imagine al-Qaida operatives using failed states such as Somalia as bases for naval attacks against ships of the Western Powers and those Arab and Muslim regimes al-Qaida is attempting to overthrow. The Revolutionary Guards possess many small, swift boats that could quickly swarm and attack American ships in the shallow Persian Gulf in the event of war between the U.S. and Iran.

Abduhl Wali-i-Musi, Somali Pirate, arrives in New York Abduhl Wali-i-Musi arriving in New York

The U.S. military, while seemingly impotent in the face of four pirates in an adrift lifeboat, reportedly has had plans for a Special Forces strike at the Somali pirates at their land bases. The Pentagon is reportedly only waiting for President Obama to authorize an attack. It should also be pointed out that the threat of the fabled pirates of the Caribbean only ended with assaults on those pirates' land bases by the U.S. and British Royal Marines in the 1820s.

See also: History Guy: The Barbary Wars--America's original response to piracy in the early 1800s.

Links and Sources:


Somali pirate arrives in NYC, awaits court hearing--Associated Press, April 20, 2009

America hails its high seas hero Richard Phillips, held hostage by Somali piratesBy allowing Somali pirates to capture him so his crew could escape, Richard Phillips has found fame - and exposed the limits of US naval might--Guardian UK, April 12, 2009

Anarchy on Land Means Piracy at Sea--Op-Ed by Robert D. Kaplan for the NY Times, April 11, 2009

Lessons From the Barbary Pirate Wars--NY Times, April 11, 2009

U.S. hostage flees Somalia pirates, is caught--LA Times, April 11, 2009

Standoff With Pirates Shows U.S. Power Has Limits--NY Times, April 10, 2009

U.S. military already prepared with battle plans for Somalia pirates, say intelligence sources--Daily News, April 9, 2009

Pirates pose annoying distraction for Obama--Reuters, April 9, 2009

FACTBOX: Ships held by Somali pirates--Reuters, April 9, 2009

For US, few military options to deter piracy--Associated Press, April 8, 2009

Crew retakes US ship from Somali pirates--Associated Press, April 8, 2009

Islamists go after pirates who took Saudi ship: Criticize theft from Muslims--Washington Times, Nov. 22, 2008

Pirates bolster defences around hijacked tanker --Times Online, Nov. 21, 2008

To turn the tide on piracy in Somalia, bring justice to its fisheries--Nov. 20, 2008

Indian navy sinks suspected pirate "mother" ship--Associated Press, Nov. 19, 2008

Somali pirates transform villages into boomtowns--Associated Press, Nov. 19, 2008

U.S. Urges Merchant Ships to Try Steps to Foil Pirates--NY Times, Nov. 19, 2008

Japan May Use Navy to Protect Ships Off Somalia, Nikkei Says--Bloomberg.com, Nov. 19, 2008

Saudi Supertanker Hijacked By Somali Pirates--NPR, Nov. 18, 2008

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