The rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, the American sailor held hostage by Somali pirates, came to a dramatic and happy conclusion on Sunday night off the coast of Africa. However, the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden remains — and may only be getting worse.
For months, shipping lines and governments had been loathe to risk trying to free hostages. The only exception had been France, which has deployed commandos to rescue captive crews off Somalia. A French hostage-rescue effort on Friday resulted in the deaths of two pirates and one of the four people aboard a yacht that had been hijacked. But Phillips’ dramatic rescue — which saw snipers on the U.S.S. Bainbridge kill the three pirates who held him hostage on a lifeboat 30 miles off the coast of Somalia — has significantly upped the ante with pirates who had previously not harmed hostages.
“This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it,” Vice Admiral William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet out of Bahrain, said after Phillips was released. U.S. officials explained their actions saying Phillips’ life was in imminent danger when the snipers struck and that they had no other option. They say negotiations with a group of Somali elders had broken down earlier in the day, and that securing Phillips’ freedom was the top priority.
The pirates, who had acted with virtual impunity for several years and are still holding as hostages some 200 crewmen of various nationalities, were infuriated by the U.S. Navy operation. They threatened new attacks against America. “After the action they took yesterday, we will respond with action,” Hassan Yare, 38, a pirate in the Somali city of Garad, tells TIME. “We’re warning the owners of the other ships that if they try to attack, we will kill the crews and burn their ships.”
It’s too early to tell whether those threats will be acted upon or are merely the words of brigands feeling stung after getting their way for so long. The pirates have had uninterrupted rule of Somalia’s seas for several months, and a spate of recent attacks suggests they are broadening their range to well beyond the Gulf of Aden to several hundred miles off the Somali coast. They once portrayed themselves as a coast guard for a country that has no government, and said they were striking back against fishing boats that illegally fished and dumped toxic waste in their waters. But what may have started as a seed of retaliation has bloomed into a full-blown criminal enterprise, with pirate financiers and organizers in cities across the world and the exchange of millions of dollars in ransom.
While the pirates are attacking ships farther and farther away, suggesting greater sophistication on their part, merchant marine crews too are looking more closely at the tools they have at their disposal — or, at any rate, are conducting more rigorous training to respond to pirate attacks. The crew of Phillips’ ship, the Maersk Alabama, for example, indicated that they had trained for precisely this scenario and attributed their success to training that Capt. Phillips had given them before their latest trip. They said they were kept on the ship well after it arrived at port in Mombasa after escaping the pirates, not only because the ship was classified as a crime scene, but also so that the crew could document the precise steps they took to rebuff the attack, which they refused to disclose to reporters.
“There’s ships right now under attack and this group here has a lot of valuable knowledge that’s going to save lives,” Maersk Alabama Chief Mate Shane Murphy said Monday. “That’s why we haven’t been out to talk to you, because we’re trying to gather that knowledge and put it in a package and we ask that you do not press us for details on things like that and we’re not going to give it because we respect the lives of the other seamen that we’re going to try to save.”
The occasional helplessness of the crews — and a new wave of attacks in recent days despite the presence of an international flotilla off Somalia — has led some experts to demand that they be armed in case of attack. On Monday, Gortney told CNN that in addition to beefing up ship defenses on their vessels, shipping companies should deploy armed guards on ships that may come under threat. But such a move has many opponents, who argue that most crews are not properly trained to handle weapons, and such a decision would butt up against the laws of dozens of nations, which do not allow merchant marine ships to dock at their ports with weapons aboard. “We as an association are opposed to arming crews,” said Tony Mason, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping in London. “They are not trained for it, they’re more likely to get hurt, and ultimately the ship owners’ primary responsibility is to its crew.”
Clearly, piracy off Somalia will not be stopped until order is brought to the country, a classic failed state which has been without a government for more than 15 years. Murphy, the Maersk Alabama’s second-in-command, said the responsibility also lies with the U.S. government, whose ships have been patrolling the Gulf of Aden as part of a multinational task force. “We’d like to implore President Obama to use all his resources and increase the commitment to ending this Somali pirate scourge,” said Murphy, the Maersk Alabama’s second-in-command. “Wake up. This crew was lucky to be out of it with every one of us alive, we’re not going to be that lucky again.”