A still unfolding drama played out on the high seas yesterday when Somali pirates hijacked an American-manned ship, the Maersk Alabama, stocked with food aid bound for Kenya. The hijacking was the first time since 1804 that pirates have hijacked an American ship, but it was the sixth successful hijacking by Somali pirates in the last two weeks.
Impressively, the ship’s 20-man crew was able to re-take control late Wednesday afternoon. The pirates to fled to a lifeboat, taking Captain Richard Phillips with them. The incident highlights the usefulness of proper training – members of the crew had prepared for the possibility of pirate attack – but also emphasizes the dangers of traversing seas accessible by pirates. Currently, an American naval destroyer is on the scene, and as many as six other U.S. ships are en route to help in Phillips’ rescue.
The recent uptick in piracy off of Somalia’s northern coast comes despite increased international efforts to patrol the vast swath vulnerable waters off East Africa. Following a number of stunning hijackings last year, European, Japanese, and American navies teamed up with Chinese officials to monitor security in the region’s international waters. However, it may have been premature to attribute any previous decline in hijacking to these unprecedented international efforts. Instead, choppier seas throughout the winter may constitute a more practical explanation for the temporary lull in Somali pirate activity. Now that the seas are calmer, the pirates – the seafaring emissaries of Somalia’s anarchic economy – appear to be out in full force.
There have been vociferous calls today for military action against targets in Somalia, but as many experts note, this approach would be fraught with difficulty and risk. Furthermore, lessening the pirate threat over the long-term will require dedicated efforts to develop legitimate governance and stability inside Somalia itself.
Laura Heaton contributed to this post.