American Ship Seized by Somali Pirates (Updated)

An American-flagged ship with 20 Americans aboard has been seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean:

Pirates commandeered a United States-flagged container ship with 20 American crew members off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday, in what appeared to be the first time an American-crewed ship was seized by pirates in the area.

The container ship, the Maersk Alabama, was carrying thousands of tons of relief aid to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the company that owns the ship said.

The ship was taken by pirates at about 7:30 a.m. local time, 280 miles southeast of the Somali city of Eyl, a known haven for pirates, a spokesman for the United States Navy said. The ship is owned and operated by Maersk Line Limited, a United States subsidiary of A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, the Danish shipping giant.

The Maersk Alabama was at least the sixth commercial ship commandeered by pirates in the last week off the Horn of Africa, one of the most notoriously lawless zones on the high seas, where pirates have been operating with near impunity despite efforts by many nations, including the United States, to intimidate them with naval warship patrols.

The story goes on to point out that the Maersk line is a primary shipping contractor for the Department of Defense, occasionally carrying sensitive cargoes.

I’ve been covering the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia for some time here and, as I’ve said before, the real solution to the problem is a solid government in Somalia, a tall, possibly unachievable order. Failing that I think the problem should be faced pragmatically.

Putting enough naval capacity into the area to do any real good will be an expensive proposition. It might well be cheaper simply to pay the ransoms. However, there could well come a point where the piracy is more than a simple irritant.

In their current condition international institutions are not robust enough to deal with piracy or terrorism or any similar issues, indeed, they may well operate against dealing with these issues in an effective manner. It will be up to the individual navies of the world and, most especially, to ours as the largest of the world’s navies to deal with the problem.

UPDATE (James Joyner):  The Pentagon is reporting that the Maersk’s crew has retaken control of their vessel.

Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told The Associated Press that he was called by the Department of Defense and told the crew, including his son Shane, the second in command, had regained control.

At a noon news conference, Maersk Line Ltd. CEO John Reinhart said that the company was working to contact families of the crew. “Speculation is a dangerous thing when you’re in a fluid environment. I will not confirm that the crew has overtaken this ship,” he said.

A U.S. official said the crew had retaken control and had one pirate in custody. “The crew is back in control of the ship,” a U.S. official said at midday, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s reported that one pirate is on board under crew control — the other three were trying to flee,” the official said. The status of the other pirates was unknown, the official said, but they were reported to “be in the water.”

Good news, if true.

Update 2 (Dave Schuler): There’s a survey of articles on dealing with the Somali pirates over at New Atlanticist you might be interested in. And a new article on the subject by Derek Reverson challenging the notion that this latest development is some sort of game-changer in the ongoing problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read all of the articles cited in the survey article yet but in the ones I have read I found a couple of omissions curious. First, Somali fishermen have been complaining for years of decreasing catches. They’ve attributed the problem to ships dumping pollutants into their fishing waters. I think that’s probably an oversimplification and think that the problem is too many fishermen and not enough fish, probably as a result of more general environmental degradation and poor resource management. Second, I’m surprised that more hasn’t been said about the lawless conditions in Somalia proper. If there’s a more perfect demonstration that less government isn’t invariably beneficial, I don’t know where it might be.

UPDATE (James Joyner): I’ll agree that most of the articles skip over those issues, treating this is a discrete security issue.   Notable exceptions, however, are Derek Reveron’s “Just Say No to a War on Piracy” and Jim Easaw’s “Maritime Shock and Awe Won’t Fix Piracy.”

FILED UNDER: General, , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. MAS1916 says:

    Obama is in a bind with this one. He can refer the matter to the UN (his preferred methodology) but there isn’t much else he can do short of military action to retrieve the vessel. Or… he can work with the pirates to understand their pain and pay the ransom.

    Will be a tricky one for the great orator.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Paying the ransom would presumably be a matter for the owners of the vessel rather than for the federal government.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    Early news reports are saying the crew has retaken the ship (possibly only a portion of it) and captured one of the pirates.

  4. John425 says:

    As President Jefferson put it: “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.”

    As Mr. Schuler put it: “It might well be cheaper simply to pay the ransoms.”

    I prefer Mr. Jefferson’s approach. Mr. Schuler sounds too much like Neville Chamberlain.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    If Jefferson said it, he was quoting Robert Goodloe Harper, who was speaking of American ships seized by the French Navy.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Oh, and John425, you might want to read up on the Barbary pirates. The United States government paid substantial ransoms to them for years. In 1800 20% of U. S. government expeditures were for ransoms paid to the Barbary pirates (who were state enterprises unlike the small-time operators in Somalia).

    Jefferson first proposed a league of small nations, i.e. international institutions, to patrol the waters involved. It was only when the problem became intolerable that military force was used.

    I’m advocating a measured, prudent approach, similar to the one used by Jefferson, rather than the rash, ineffective, ahistorical, profligate one you’re advocating.

  7. Wayne says:

    “as I’ve said before, the real solution to the problem is a solid government in Somalia, a tall, possibly unachievable order”

    Efforts to do just that have been going on for some time but that is one big can of worms. There has been some success but it will be a long haul. There are so many factions and gangs and knowing who is trustworthy, who has what strength, and who will or will not turn on you in the future is very hard to guess. Not to mention the international borders there are a joke and there is always the jobs\economic issues to deal with. A solid government is a good idea but much harder to achieve than it is to say.

    Short term solution is to make it nonprofitable to take ships. Paying ransom only encourages more of the same. Killing the pirates discourages it. It is that simple. It may cost more in the short run but less in the long run.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Short term solution is to make it nonprofitable to take ships. Paying ransom only encourages more of the same. Killing the pirates discourages it. It is that simple. It may cost more in the short run but less in the long run.

    Unfortunately, it’s not nearly that simple. The amount of ocean and coastal area to be patrolled is very large and the operations of the pirates are quite small. We’re talking about needles and haystacks. Again, this isn’t the same situation as the Barbary pirates and even in that case the U. S. government paid tributes for years before we shamed the British government into doing something about the situation (operations by the Barbary pirates continued even after our two wars with them).

  9. Drew says:

    Has Obama apologized to these Somali’s for the American injustice that has caused them to become pirates?

  10. If there’s a more perfect demonstration that less government isn’t invariably beneficial, I don’t know where it might be.

    Hrmmm … perhaps. But the argument here in the states doesn’t address the situation in Somalia. Limited Government advocates here are for reducing, not eliminating, the scope and influence of a centralized, Federal Government.

    Unless I miss my guess, Somalia does not have even a smallish, centralized Government with any influence to speak of. Rather it is a country practically ruled by warlords and regional chieftans who are the real power.

    That being the case, perhaps it’s more apples-to-oranges than a true picture of the value of Limited Government.

    Your thoughts?

    Blue

  11. John425 says:

    Schuler says: “I’m advocating a measured, prudent approach…”

    Gee, forgive me. I thought that paying ransom only leads to more ransom demands. Now I see that a measured approach would work. Kinda like the measured approach demanded of the Israelis when they undergo rocket attacks. If they only kill a few of the Hamas terrorists then Israel will be safe. Right?

    BTW: From 1803 Washington, in effect, made war against the beys. In one episode in 1805 American marines marched across the desert from Egypt into Tripolitania, forcing Tripoli to make peace and surrender all American slaves, and giving rise to the famous line in the U.S. Marine Corps anthem “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shore of Tripoli“. Immediately after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, when the cruising season of 1815 opened, Washington sent out a squadron under Stephen Decatur to punish the Barbary towns for violations of previous agreements. He forced the Bey of Tunis to pay $46,000 in compensation, and in Tripoli he also exacted a fine and secured the release of some Danish and Neapolitan slaves. His squadron was relived by five of the new ‘big’ frigates under Commodore William Bainbridge who, in June 1815, achieved a remarkable moral victory over the Bey of Algiers, who was given exactly three hours to comply with an American ultimatum to hand over all U.S. captives plus a cash compensation; the Bey capitulated on time. There is some doubt about the permanent effectiveness of this American intervention, since all the pirate rulers repudiated their treaties once American ships were below the horizon. But news of it created a sensation in Britain and led to irresistible pressure on the government to order a similar display of British naval power.

    Could we, please, have the history repeat itself again now?!

    The U.S. is a party to the international Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, which commits any signatory state to extradite or prosecute pirates, regardless of where the pirates’ acts occurred.

    Indeed, our Constitution expressly empowers Congress to “define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas. . . ” (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, clause 10).

    Early in our history we faced a similar problem in the same part of the world. But President Thomas Jefferson’s approach was to focus on the real source of the terror: the ports that gave security to the brigands. By attacking these “safe harbors,” the American Navy brought an end to the reign of terror.

    Time to learn from history. The commercial nations must advise the Somali people that the next port that gives shelter to a captured vessel will be destroyed, as will the next one, and the one after that. There won’t be a fourth.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Your thoughts?

    I think that limited government is prudent and no government is disastrous. I am responding more to anarchists than to people who believe in limited government.

    We have an enormous amount of government here. That’s something not appreciated by our European cousins since their systems tend to be rather more top-down than ours. Said another way, the state government of Maryland isn’t a department of the federal government.

    I don’t think the problem here is so much too much government or not enough government as misapplied government.

  13. Michael says:

    If Jefferson said it, he was quoting Robert Goodloe Harper, who was speaking of American ships seized by the French Navy.

    I’ve always heard it attributed to Jefferson in reference to the tributes paid to the Barbary states.

    The United States government paid substantial ransoms to them for years. In 1800 20% of U. S. government expeditures were for ransoms paid to the Barbary pirates

    Which Jefferson put an immediate end to upon taking office.

    I’m advocating a measured, prudent approach, similar to the one used by Jefferson

    Jefferson’s approach culminated on US forces marching on Tripoli.

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Time to learn from history. The commercial nations must advise the Somali people that the next port that gives shelter to a captured vessel will be destroyed, as will the next one, and the one after that. There won’t be a fourth.

    And the people in and around that port who don’t have anything to do with piracy?

    You are looking at a different time where “killing a few wogs” wasn’t considered a big deal. Now most of us would not be happy with people being killed in pursuit of such a policy.

  15. Michael says:

    You are looking at a different time where “killing a few wogs” wasn’t considered a big deal. Now most of us would not be happy with people being killed in pursuit of such a policy.

    Quite right, tactics of 1805 won’t do today. I say we sink any seized vessel that isn’t immediately surrendered, and do our best to rescue those on board. We may not know where they will strike, but we do know where they anchor their prizes.

  16. Wayne says:

    John425 well said

    Dave You show a lack of imagination if you think the only way to make the Somalia Pirates efforts nonprofitable is to intercept them in the act. As John has said we can make the safe harbors non-safe. Also we can press to give these large vessels means to protect themselves. Also once a ship is taken we can take military actions against those who take them even at times before they make it to a harbor. Will we suffer some loses? Probably but there is no profit for the pirates if we kill them therefore will result for most of them having no reason to commit piracy.

    Steve you don’t have to bombard a port encourage them not to give safe harbor to pirates.

  17. Our Paul says:

    I would like everybody to note that that I have resisted with every fiber of my body, mind, and mythical soul to, although multiple possibilities come to mind, of sufficient quality to tickle my fun bone, snark at Dave’s comment in Update 2#:

    If there’s a more perfect demonstration that less government isn’t invariably beneficial, I don’t know where it might be.

    Go for it Dave, there is no reason to waste time defending your comment…

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    ……Jefferson’s approach culminated on US forces marching on Tripoli…..

    And this is also why he owned a Koran, so he could study how to defeat those Muslim terrorists.

  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    Hmmm I wonder if president 666 owns one? And for what reason if he does?

    lol.

  20. John425 says:

    A WOG was the Britsh shorthand of “Worthy Oriental Gentleman” First I note that Somalis are black Africans, not Asian. I also find that comment to be a racist dismissal. It also displays a remarkable lack of understanding of military tactics. There are: torpedos, SEALS, mines and drones that could destroy safe harbors with little or no killing.

    Additionally, I might point out that there are few “civilians” in a land of lawlessness.

    SurrenderCheeseMonkeys, anyone?

  21. Michael says:

    And this is also why he owned a Koran, so he could study how to defeat those Muslim terrorists.

    Is that also why he owned a Bible? Or why he re-wrote the Bible?

  22. An Interested Party says:

    Hmmm I wonder if president 666 owns one? And for what reason if he does?

    Well of course he owns one and isn’t the reason for that obvious? He wants to establish a Muslim Caliphate right here in the good ole U.S.A….I thought you would have known that…

  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    Is that also why he owned a Bible? Or why he re-wrote the Bible?

    No, lol, Man do you have any idea how he wanted to pen the declaration and why he had to rewrite that?

    Dude he was not a liberal, well not the likes of the pitiful kind we have creeping around these days.

  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    Well of course he owns one and isn’t the reason for that obvious? He wants to establish a Muslim Caliphate right here in the good ole U.S.A….I thought you would have known that…

    Come on bro it was a joke even that I think he is quite evil, he owns one for the same reason he owns a Bible, as props to sucker people into believing his fake ass ideology.

    lol, but then again why a person that has supposedly been reading the bible for 20 years under a spiritual mentor, lol, seems to want to play one of the main villains roles in it’s last book to the T, lol, is beyond me, plus I’m almost certain then all devils have blue lips.

  25. sam says:

    GA Phillips prays to his god:

    Dear lord lol I beseech thee lol to guide my steps lol as I walk through the valley of the shadow of lol Obama. Please lol lolrd, hasten the day when my tadpole does not shrivel lol when the lol annointed one comes on the tv. lol. Speaking of my lol tadpole, oh lord, lol, since that blue-lol-lipped devil as come on the scene lol, my tadpole has been more tad than pole lol…could you help it to regain its lol manly uprightness lol before the next tea party lol? There will be some lol pretty hot tea partyettes there lol and a limp tadpole will not put me in good standing, if you catch my drift lol. Amen lol.

  26. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol, Na mostly I pray to understand why liberals are so stupid and unreachable.

    Sam Praying to his devil:

    ObamatepObamatepObamatep…………..

    p.s. PLEASE FIND YOURSELF A BOYFRIEND AND THINK ABOUT HIS TADPOLE AND FORGET ABOUT MINE ITS TAKEN.