After U.S. Navy SEALs killed three men holding an American captain hostage in the Gulf of Aden, some Somali pirates vowed retaliation, saying they would target U.S. ships in the area.
But roughly a month after pirates seized the Maersk Alabama and fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons on the U.S.-flagged Liberty Sun, there have been no further attacks against American boats or their crews.
And maritime experts believe it is unlikely that pirates will succeed again anytime soon because there are so few U.S. ships in the Gulf of Aden — as few as one out of the 70-80 ships in the Gulf of Aden each day — and because increased attention by the United States makes any attack especially risky.
“You’re going to be a poor pirate if you specifically go after U.S. vessels, and you’re going to be leading a short life,” said Donna Nincic, chairwoman of the department of maritime policy and management at the California Maritime Academy.
Still, the threat of pirates is constant for any ship in the gulf, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. It offers the shortest route from Asia to Europe and is one of the world’s busiest seaways.
There were at least 84 pirate attacks in the first quarter this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and about 250 crewmembers remain in Somali captivity aboard 19 hijacked vessels. But the attack of the Maersk Alabama on April 8 was the first armed takeover of a U.S.-flagged ship in 34 years.
American crews have remained safe for so long largely because fewer U.S.-flagged ships travel in the gulf compared with ships from other countries.
American ships make up a small percentage of the world’s fleets. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, 286 ships flew the U.S. flag in 2006, the most recent figures available. Panama, by comparison, had 3,668 — the world’s largest fleet.
Even U.S. companies that rely on trade in the Gulf of Aden often use ships under foreign flags, in part because foreign regulations can be less restrictive than U.S. rules and because it’s less expensive to hire non-American crews and to build the ships outside of the United States.
“The biggest reason is it’s much more economical to operate those ships with other crews than U.S. citizens,” said Douglas J. Mavrinac, head of maritime research at investment firm Jefferies & Co.
U.S. laws require companies receiving government contracts to mostly use domestic crews and ships, so of the few American ships in the waters off the African coast, most carry either military or humanitarian goods. Both the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun, which was violently attacked April 14 by pirates who fled before the U.S. Navy arrived to help, were carrying aid to African countries.
The Liberty Sun is operated by Liberty Maritime Corp., based in Lake Success, N.Y.; the Maersk Alabama is managed by Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Lines Limited.
Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., was held hostage on a lifeboat for five days and was freed when U.S. Navy snipers killed three of his captors. His second-in-command and fellow Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate, Capt. Shane Murphy, of Seekonk, Mass., then took control of the ship.
After the rescue, some Somali pirates vowed retaliation. A pirate whose gang went after the Liberty Sun said the group was targeting U.S. ships and would “slaughter” Americans.
But such threats only make future attacks more difficult because of increased awareness and action from the U.S. military and government, said Donald Frost, publications editor for Connecticut Maritime Association, the country’s largest shipping trade association.
“To my mind, if you want to clean up the piracy issue, the best thing they can do is do something stupid, like declare open bounty on American ships,” Frost said.
A Portuguese warship seized explosives from suspected
Somali pirates after thwarting an attack on a Norwegian-owned oil
tanker in the Gulf of Aden, a NATO spokesman said last Saturday. It was the first time NATO forces found pirates armed with raw
explosives, Lt-Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes said from the
Portuguese frigate the Corte-Real. More »
A Portuguese warship seized explosives from suspected Somali pirates after thwarting an attack on a Norwegian-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden, a NATO spokesman said last Saturday. It was the first time NATO forces found pirates armed with raw explosives, Lt-Cmdr. Alexandre Santos Fernandes said from the Portuguese frigate the Corte-Real. More »
There are no treasure-laden islands or Blackbeards in this part of the world, no wooden schooners flying skull-and-crossbones flags. Instead, there’s a vigilante movement that years ago tried to defend Somali shores and has morphed into a full-blown pirate scourge, after fishermen on defense stumbled upon an astoundingly lucrative bounty waiting to be had on their doorstep. More »
The opportunity for heightened tensions has also increased due to the recent hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that had 20 Americans on board, and their kidnapping of Capt. Richard Phillips, a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Phillips was rescued on April 12, when Navy snipers killed three of the pirates holding him hostage on a lifeboat. More »