The coast of Somalia was a dangerous place in the spring of 2009. Over 50 vessels had been attacked by pirates.The U.S. flagged ship, MV Maersk Alabama was then attacked, the sixth such attack in less than a week of the Somali coast.

Alabama was taken by pirates, the first successful pirate attack on a United States vessel since the early nineteenth century. Phillips was held by pirates until he was freed by U.S. Navy SEALs a few days later. The incident was portrayed in the film, “Captain Phillips” which starred Tom Hanks.

There was a bit of controversy after the fact as many of the ship’s crew didn’t see the events as they unfolded on film as they actually depicted and characterized Phillips as an ego-driven, man who took too many risks and didn’t pay heed to his crewmen or their warnings about pirates in the area.

Background: The Alabama sailed from Salalah, Oman and was bound for Mombasa, Kenya after a brief stop in Djibouti with a crew of 23, loaded with 17,000 metric tons of cargo. On 8 April 2009, they were attacked by four pirates who closed from seven miles away. Phillips ordered the speed increased while Chief Engineer Mike Perry, following their established anti-piracy routine that the crew had trained for, gathered the crew into a “secure” room the crew had prepared.

When the pirates’ skiff neared the Alabama, Perry and  1st Assistant Engineer Matt Fisher swung the ship’s rudder over hard, the resultant wake then swamped the pirate ’s small skiff. The plan was for Perry to disable the bridge control away from the ship’s engines and steering. The ship was then to be shut down so the pirates couldn’t sail her to Somalia.

Captain Phillips with the skipper of the USS Bainbridge

However, the pirates still succeeded in boarding and capturing the ship, Captain Richard Phillips and several other crew members. Much to their chagrin, the pirates learned that they couldn’t control the ship. The head pirate Abduwali Muse only 18 years old, started below deck to find the rest of the crew to force them to repower the ship, take them hostage and sail to Somalia.

In the darkened engine room, Muse was tackled and taken down by Perry who held a knife to the pirate’s throat. He had his hand gashed by Perry while trying to grab the knife away from him. After several hours in the stifling engine room where temperatures reached nearly 130 degrees, Alabama’s crew offered to swap their crew members for the head pirate.

But the plan went to hell in a handbasket when the pirates refused to release Phillips when their chief was released. Phillips offered to show them how to use Alabama’s lifeboat, and then the pirates took him hostage.

The U.S. Navy was alerted to the situation and the frigate, USS Halyburton FFG-40 as well as the guided-missile destroyer, USS Bainbridge DDG-96 were dispatched to the area in the response of the hostage-taking. They reached the Alabama the next day, on April 9 and arranged for her to be escorted to her original destination at Mombasa.

The two Navy ships shadowed the Alabama’s lifeboat, just out of range of their weapons. But via satellite phone, the pirates had contacted some of their fellow pirates in Somalia and they were racing out to sea with other ships loaded with 54 other hostages from China, Germany, Russia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan. The plan was to ransom off Phillips and the rest of the hostages. They wanted to get close to shore to make it harder for the Americans to attempt a rescue. A third American warship joined the expedition, the Amphibious assault ship, USS Boxer LHD-4.

The Americans negotiated with the pirates via satellite phone and arranged to drop food, water, and fuel for the pirates. The pirate with the cut hand, Muse asked for medical attention and was taken to the Bainbridge where he was treated and placed under arrest. This continued for awhile but after a few days the negotiations were breaking down. The pirates fired a single shot on the Bainbridge from a hatch on the lifeboat.  

The SEALs Arrive: Meanwhile, Six U.S. Navy SEALs from DEVGRU (SEAL Team Six) were flown out to the site in near the ships. The parachuted into the ocean with an inflatable boat and were taken aboard the Bambridge. They took up positions on the Bambridge’s fantail but were forbidden to engage the pirates by order of the President unless the Captain’s life was in danger.

The Defense Department had asked for permission from President Obama to use deadly force to rescue Phillips. But the President stated only if the Captain’s life was in danger.

With their food, water, and fuel gone, the pirates accepted a tow from the Bainbridge. Initially, there was a 200-foot tow rope attached. But as it grew dark, the Navy shortened it to 100 feet unbeknownst to the pirates.

The shot from the lifeboat ratcheted up the tension. The SEALs with night vision scopes attached to their Mk 11 Mod 0 (SR-25) 7.62mm sniper rifles and kept the lifeboat under tight watch.  There was movement on the lifeboat, two pirates emerged on the back of the lifeboat, and the third was visible through a porthole, with his rifle pointed at the back of Captain Phillips.

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This was the opening that the SEALs were waiting for. Once the order was given, showing an incredible amount of marksmanship, on a boat in the ocean, the SEALs fired and killed all three pirates. Phillips was rescued. And shortly afterward, was reunited with his family.

Abduwali Muse was flown to New York City where he was charged with piracy, conspiracy to seize a ship by force, and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking. His lawyers tried to have him tried as a juvenile, but he admitted to being 18. Muse pleaded guilty to hijacking, kidnapping, and hostage-taking charges in lieu of piracy charges. He received a prison sentence of 33 years and nine months.

The lifeboat that held the Somali pirates and Captain Phillips is now located at the Navy’s UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Photos: US Navy

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