Maersk Alabama hijacking
The Maersk Alabama hijacking was a series of maritime events that began with four pirates in the Indian Ocean seizing the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama 240 nautical miles (440 km; 280 mi) southeast of Eyl, Somalia. The siege ended after a rescue effort by the U.S. Navy on 12 April 2009. It was the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th century. Many news reports referenced the last pirate seizure as being during the Second Barbary War in 1815, although other incidents had occurred as late as 1821. It was the sixth vessel in a week to be attacked by pirates who had previously extorted ransoms in the tens of millions of dollars.
The story of the incident was reported in the 2010 book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Stephan Talty and Captain Richard Phillips, who had been master of the vessel at the time of the incident. The hijacking also inspired the 2013 film Captain Phillips.
The ship, with a crew of 23, loaded with 17,000 metric tons of cargo, was bound for Mombasa, Kenya, after a stop in Djibouti. On 8 April 2009, four pirates based on the FV Win Far 161 attacked the ship. All four of the pirates were between 17 and 19 years old, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The crew members of the Maersk Alabama had received anti-piracy training from union training schools, and had drilled aboard the ship a day previously. Their training included the use of small arms, anti-terror, basic safety, first aid, and other security-related courses. When the pirate alarm sounded early on Wednesday, 8 April, Chief Engineer Mike Perry brought 14 members of the crew into a "secure room" that the engineers had been in the process of fortifying for just such a purpose. As the pirates approached, the remaining crew fired flares. In addition, Perry and 1st A/E (Assistant Engineer) Matt Fisher swung the ship's rudder, which swamped the pirate skiff.
Nonetheless, the ship was boarded. Perry had initially taken main engine control away from the bridge and 1st A/E Matt Fisher had taken control of the steering gear. Perry then shut down all ship systems and the entire vessel "went black." The pirates captured Captain Richard Phillips and several other crew members minutes after boarding, but soon found that they could not control the ship.
Perry remained outside the secure room lying in wait, knife in hand, for a visit from the pirates who were trying to locate the missing crew members in order to gain control of the ship and presumably sail it to Somalia. Perry tackled the ringleader of the pirates and took him prisoner after a cat-and-mouse chase in a darkened engine room. The pirate ringleader, Abduwali Muse, cut his hand badly trying to keep Perry's knife away from his neck. The pirate was then tied up and his wounds were treated by Second Mate Ken Quinn.
Later, after suffering in the overheated secure room for hours, the crew attempted to exchange the pirate they had captured for the captain, but the exchange went awry and after the crew released their captive, the pirates refused to honor the agreement. Captain Phillips escorted the pirates to a lifeboat to show them how to operate it, but then the pirates fled in the lifeboat with Phillips as a hostage.
On 8 April 2009, the United States Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) and the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton (FFG-40) – the latter with two SH-60B helicopters on board – were dispatched to the Gulf of Aden in response to the hostage situation. The ships reached the Maersk Alabama early on 9 April.
The Maersk Alabama was then escorted from the scene to its original destination of Mombasa where Captain Larry D. Aasheim took command of the ship. Phillips had relieved Aasheim nine days earlier. CNN and Fox News quoted sources stating that the pirates' strategy was to await the arrival of additional hijacked vessels carrying more pirates and additional hostages to use as human shields.
A stand-off began on 9 April 2009 between the Bainbridge, the Halyburton, and the pirates' lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama, on which they held Phillips hostage. The lifeboat itself was covered and contained plenty of food and water but lacked basic comforts, including a toilet or ventilation. The Bainbridge was equipped with a ScanEagle drone and Rigid-hulled inflatable boats. Both vessels stayed several hundred yards away, out of the pirates' range of fire. A P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft secured aerial footage and reconnaissance. Radio communication between the two ships was established. Four foreign vessels held by pirates headed towards the scene. A total of 54 hostages were on two of the ships, citizens of China, Germany, Russia, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia, and Taiwan.
On 10 April 2009, Phillips attempted to escape from the lifeboat, but was recaptured after the captors fired shots. The pirates then threw a phone and a two-way radio dropped to them by the U.S. Navy into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehow using the equipment to give instructions to the captain. The United States dispatched another warship, amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD-4), to the site off the Horn of Africa. The pirates' strategy was to link up with their comrades, who were holding various other hostages, and to get Phillips to Somalia where they could hide him and make a rescue more difficult for the Americans. Anchoring near shore would allow them to land quickly if attacked. Negotiations were ongoing between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge and FBI hostage negotiators. The captors were also communicating with other pirate vessels by satellite phone.
However, negotiations broke down hours after the pirates fired on the Halyburton not long after sunrise on Saturday, 11 April 2009. The American frigate did not return fire and "did not want to escalate the situation". No crew members of the Halyburton were injured from the gunfire, as the shots were fired haphazardly by a pirate from the front hatch of the lifeboat.
"We are safe and we are not afraid of the Americans. We will defend ourselves if attacked", one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. Phillips' family had gathered at his farmhouse in Vermont awaiting a resolution to the situation.
On Saturday, 11 April 2009, the Maersk Alabama arrived in the port of Mombasa, Kenya, under U.S. military escort. An 18-man security team was on board. The FBI then secured the ship as a crime scene.
Commander Frank Castellano, the commanding officer of the Bainbridge, stated that as the winds picked up, tensions rose among the pirates and "we calmed them" and persuaded the pirates to be towed by the destroyer.
On Sunday, 12 April 2009, U.S. Navy SEAL marksmen opened fire and killed the three pirates on the lifeboat. Phillips was rescued uninjured. Commander Castellano, with prior authorization from higher authority, ordered the action after determining Phillips' life was in immediate danger, citing reports that a pirate was pointing an AK-47 rifle at Phillips' back. Navy SEAL snipers, from "SEAL Team Six", fired approximately 6-7 shots from Bainbridge's fantail, killing the three pirates with bullets to the head. The SEALs had arrived Friday afternoon after being parachuted into the water near the Halyburton, which later joined with the Bainbridge. At the time, the Bainbridge had the lifeboat under tow, approximately 25 to 30 yards astern. One of the pirates killed was Ali Aden Elmi, the last name of another was Hamac, and the third has not been identified in English-language press reports. A fourth pirate, Abduwali Muse, aboard the Bainbridge and negotiating for Phillips' release while being treated for an injury sustained in the takeover of Maersk Alabama, remained in custody.
The bodies of the three dead pirates were turned over by the U.S. Navy to unidentified recipients in Somalia in the last week of April 2009.
The surviving pirate, Abduwali Muse, was held on the Boxer and was eventually flown to the United States for trial. In a federal courtroom in New York City, prosecutors brought charges that included piracy, conspiracy to seize a ship by force, and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking. Muse's lawyers asked that he be tried as a juvenile, alleging he was either 15 or 16 years old at the time of the hostage taking, but the court ruled Muse was not a juvenile and would be tried as an adult. He later admitted he was 18 years old and pleaded guilty to hijacking, kidnapping and hostage-taking charges (in lieu of piracy charges), and was handed a prison sentence of 33 years and nine months.
Maersk Alabama has successfully repelled two attacks since the rescue of Captain Phillips, partly through the use of armed security.
The owners of MV Maersk Alabama donated the bullet-marked 5-ton fiberglass lifeboat upon which the pirates held Captain Phillips hostage to the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, in August 2009. The lifeboat had recently been on loan to National Geographic for its "Real Pirates" exhibition at the Nauticus marine science museum in Norfolk, Virginia. The producers of the Captain Phillips film visited the Museum in the process of re-creating the lifeboat and interiors for the set. An example of the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle used to monitor the crisis is also on display, as is the Mark 11 Mod 0 (SR-25) sniper rifle of the type used by the U.S. Navy SEALS to kill the pirates and free Phillips.
- List of ships attacked by Somali pirates
- Combined Task Force 150 and Combined Task Force 151, coalition force counter-piracy operations in the region.
- Dai Hong Dan, a similar incident involving the hijacking of a North Korean ship.
- Joint Special Operations Command
- Operation Atalanta a campaign of the European Union to stop the piracy off the Somali coast.
- Operation Dawn 9: Gulf of Aden, a naval operation of the Royal Malaysian Navy to rescue Malaysian flagged-tanker.
- Operation Dawn of Gulf of Aden, a similar rescue of a South Korean-operated tanker.
- Piracy in Somalia
- Second Barbary War
- Captain Phillips, a 2013 film based upon the event.
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- The actual lifeboat from Maersk Alabama is now at the SEAL Museum: https://navysealmuseum.com/home-to-artifacts-from-the-secret-world-of-naval-special-warfare/maersk-alabama-lifeboat-and-mk-25-sniper-rifle-from-easter-seal-rescue/
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Maersk Alabama (ship, 1998).|
- M.E.B.A. Marine Officer Magazine – Summer 2009 edition – "Don't Give Up the Ship: Quick Thinking and a Boatload of Know-how Saves the Maersk Alabama" Detailed 12 page description of hijacking
- Hijackers on Cargo Ship: 'They Ran' – Associated Press on YouTube
- U.S. Crew Re-Captures Ship From Pirates at ABC News
- 'Reelz Channel'
- Capt Phillips on The Daily Show