News

The Hijacking of the MAERSK ALABAMA 10 Years On: Could It Happen Again?

April 4th 2019

Next Tuesday, April 9, marks the 10th anniversary of the hijacking of the U.S.-flagged freighter MAERSK ALABAMA.

It was the first time in more than 200 years that pirates had boarded an American-flagged vessel.

The immediate aftermath of the attack–the kidnapping by the pirates of Captain Richard Phillips–held the world transfixed for five days.

Phillips was held hostage in a covered lifeboat until Navy sharpshooters aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS BAINBRIDGE intervened, killing three of the pirates.

What has changed since April 9, 2009? Could another U.S. ship be hijacked today?

“Absolutely, if we let our guard down,” Captain Phillips says.

“Now there are cops on the beat–armed security guards aboard ships in addition to international navies patrolling pirate-prone areas–but if that situation changes, it could definitely happen again.”

He says “there are so few U.S.-flag ships now that it’s unlikely one would be hijacked. But are there still risks for American mariners? The answer is yes.”

Captain James Staples, a security expert who works at MITAGS, agrees.

“The piracy situation has only changed in one geographic area: off the coast of Somalia,” he says.

“Piracy globally continues. In Nigeria, it’s happening all the time: with people taken, ships taken. The de-escalation has only been in that one area and it’s all because of Captain Phillips. If he hadn’t been taken, this wouldn’t have happened. The threat is still high in other parts of the world. Rich Phillips was the catalyst; hundreds of sailors had been taken before but it didn’t make the news.”

Is the key factor the presence of an armed security detail? Are there other factors, for example, ships traveling farther from the coast, in areas that are harder for pirates in small boats to reach?

“Places like the Singapore Straits and Indonesia you just cannot get far from the coast due to the geography of the area,” Staples says.

“You are basically coastwise for days and in close proximity to shoals and other vessels.”

“And when you make an entry into a country, you have to cross the demarcation line at some point,” he adds.

After the MAERSK ALABAMA hijacking, security teams aboard at-risk ships had as many as five members.

“Now companies are down to two or three people, which is not enough to face down, for example, Abu Sayyaf or another terrorist group,” Staples says.

He and Phillips believe the terrorist threat to ships–including those flying the U.S. flag–is now greater than the threat of piracy.