ForeignPolicy  
comments_image Comments

'Pirates' Strike a U.S. Ship Owned by a Pentagon Contractor, But Is the Media Telling the Whole Story?

Reports say the crew of a U.S. cargo vessel seized early today has retaken the ship, but there's more to the story of rising "pirate" attacks.
 
 
Share

UPDATE: At least one nuclear-powered U.S. warship isreportedlyon 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 ahalf-billion dollarsin 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.

The 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:

A 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.

But 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:

As 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 300 died.


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."


As 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."

All 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:

Quinn: 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?
Quinn: What?
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?
Quinn: 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.’”

Jeremy 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.