UPDATE: At least one nuclear-powered U.S. warship is reportedly
on its way to the scene of the hijacking off the coast of Somalia of a
vessel owned by a major Pentagon contractor. A U.S. official told the Associated Press
the destroyer USS Bainbridge is en route while another official said
six or seven ships are responding to the takeover of the “Maersk
Alabama,” which is part of a fleet of ships owned by Maersk Ltd., a
U.S. subsidiary of a Denmark firm, which does about a half-billion dollars in business with the U.S. government a year.
The Somali pirates who took
control of the 17,000-ton “Maersk Alabama” cargo-ship in the early
hours of Wednesday morning probably were unaware that the ship they
were boarding belonged to a U.S. Department of Defense contractor with
“top security clearance,” which does a half-billion dollars in annual
business with the Pentagon, primarily the Navy. The ship was being
operated by an “all-American” crew — there were 20 U.S. nationals on
the ship. “Every indication is that this is the first time a
U.S.-flagged ship has been successfully seized by pirates,” said
Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesperson for for the U.S. Navy’s
Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. The last documented pirate attack of a U.S.
vessel by African pirates was reported in 1804, off Libya, according to
The Los Angeles Times.
The company, A.P. Moller-Maersk,
is a Denmark-based company with a large U.S. subsidiary, Maersk Line,
Ltd, that serves U.S. government agencies and contractors. The company,
which is based in Norfolk, Virginia, runs the world’s largest fleet of
U.S.-flag vessels. The “Alabama” was about 300 miles off the coast of
the Puntland region of northern Somalia when it was taken. The U.S.
military says the Alabama was not operating on a DoD contract at the
time and was said to be delivering food aid.
The closest U.S.
warship to the “Alabama” at the time of the seizure was 300 miles away.
The U.S. Navy did not say how or if it would respond, but seemed not to
rule out intervention. “It’s fair to say we are closely monitoring the
situation, but we will not discuss nor speculate on current and future
military operations,” said Navy Cmdr. Jane Campbell.
seizure of the ship seemed to have been short-lived. At the time of
this writing, the Pentagon was reporting that the U.S. crew retook the
ship and was holding one of the pirates in custody. At this point, it
is unclear if the crew acted alone or had assistance from the military
or another security force.
Over the past year, there has been a
dramatic uptick in media coverage of the “pirates,” particularly in the
Gulf of Aden. Pirates reportedly
took in upwards of $150 million in ransoms last year alone. In fact,
at the moment the Alabama’s seizure, pirates were already holding 14
other vessels with about 200 crew members, according to the
International Maritime Bureau. There have been seven hijackings in the
past month alone.
Often, the reporting on pirates centers around
the gangsterism of the pirates and the seemingly huge ransoms they
demand. Indeed, piracy can be a very profitable business, as the
following report from Reuters suggests:
rough back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the operation to
hijack the Saudi tanker, the Sirius Star, cost no more than $25,000,
assuming that the pirates bought new equipment and weapons ($450 apiece
for an AK-47 Kalashnikov, $5,000 for an RPG-7 grenade launcher, $15,000
for a speedboat). That contrasts with an initial ransom demand to the
tanker’s owner, Saudi Aramco, of $25 million.
“Piracy is an
excellent business model if you operate from an impoverished, lawless
place like Somalia,” says Patrick Cullen, a security expert at the
London School of Economics who has been researching piracy. “The
risk-reward ratio is just huge.”
But this type of
coverage of the pirates is similar to the false narrative about
“tribalism” being the cause of all of Africa’s problems. Of course,
there are straight-up gangsters and criminals engaged in these
hijackings. Perhaps the pirates who hijacked the Alabama on Wednesday
fall into that category. We do not yet know. But that is hardly the
whole “pirate” story. Consider what one pirate told The New York Times
after he and his men seized a Ukrainian freighter “loaded with tanks,
artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition” last year. “We don’t
consider ourselves sea bandits,” said Sugule Ali:. “We consider sea
bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas
and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think
of us like a coast guard.” Now, that “coast guard” analogy is a
stretch, but his point is an important and widely omitted part of this
story. Indeed the Times article was titled, “Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money.” Yet, The New York Times acknowledged, “the piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago… as a response to illegal fishing.”
Take this fact:
Over $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are “being stolen
every year by illegal trawlers” off Somalia’s coast, forcing the
fishing industry there into a state of virtual non-existence.
it isn’t just the theft of seafood. Nuclear dumping has polluted the
environment. “In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed,” wrote
Johann Hari in The Independent.
“Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since
— and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a
great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our
nuclear waste in their seas.”
According to Hari:
soon as the [Somali] government was gone, mysterious European ships
started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into
the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they
suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the
2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on
shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than
This is the context in which the “pirates” have
emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the
dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a “tax” on them. They call
themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia — and ordinary Somalis
agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per
cent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence.”
the media coverage of the pirates has increased, private security
companies like Xe/Blackwater have stepped in, seeing profits. A few
months ago, Blackwater executives flew to London to meet with shipping
company executives about protecting their ships from pirate attacks. In
October, the company deployed
the MacArthur, its “private sector warship equipped with helicopters”
to the Gulf of Aden. “We have been contacted by shipowners who say they
need our help in making sure goods get to their destination,” said the
company’s executive vice-president, Bill Matthews. “The McArthur can
help us accomplish that.”
According to an engineer
aboard the MacArthur, the ship, whose crew includes former Navy SEALS,
was at one point stationed in an area several hundred miles off the
coast of Yemen. “Security teams will escort ships around both horns of
Africa, Somalia and Yemen as they head to the Suez Canal… The McArthur
will serve as a staging point for the SEALs and their smaller boats.”
of this is important to keep in context any time you see a short blurb
pop up about pirates attacking ships. “Did we expect starving Somalians
to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and
watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris
and Rome?” Hari asked. “We won’t act on those crimes — the only sane
solution to this problem — but when some of the fishermen responded by
disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world’s oil
supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats.”
Just as it
seemed that this drama was coming to an end, the story has taken a very
bizarre turn. It seems as though the pirates essentially tricked the
ship’s “all-American” crew into handing over the Alabama’s captain,
Capt. Richard Phillips.
After reports, based on Pentagon
sources, emerged that the ship had been retaken by the US crew, word
came from the ship that the captain of the “Alabama” had been taken by
the pirates onto a lifeboat. The details of how exactly the four
pirates managed to get the captain onto a lifeboat are still sketchy,
but it seems a little bit like a scene out of a Marx brothers movie.
The ship’s second mate Kenn Quinn was interviewed on CNN and described
how the crew was essentially tricked into handing the captain over to
the pirates. Quinn spoke to CNN’s Kyra Phillips:
When they board, they sank their boats so the captain talked them into
getting off the ship with the lifeboat. But we took one of their
pirates hostage and did an exchange. What? Huh? Okay. I’ve got to go.
Phillips: Ken, can you stay with me for just two more seconds?
Phillips: Can you tell me about the negotiations, what you’ve offered these pirates in exchange for your captain?
Quinn: We had one of their hostages. We had a pirate we took and kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up and he was our prisoner.
Phillips: Did you return him?
Yeah, we did. But we returned him but they didn’t return the captain.
So now we’re just trying to offer them whatever we can. Food. But it’s
not working too good.”
As TV Newser
pointed out, “Later Phillips gave what may be the understatement of the
day: ‘It sounds like the pirates did not keep their end of the deal.’”
Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the
national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent extensive time
reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing
Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of Blackwater:
The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His writing and
reporting is available at RebelReports.com.