Sunday, April 12, 2009

Captain Free, Pirates Dead

Just today, Captain Phillips of the Mearsk Alabama is free. Recall that he was captured by pirates (somewhat voluntarily, to protect his crew) on their way off the ship that the crew was taking control of.

During the past few days, US Navy vessels were actually towing the lifeboat with the Captain and 4 pirates on board. One pirate went onto a naval vessel to negotiate. Capt. Phillips, who was tied up due to having previously attempted to escape, probably noticed that there were snipers aboard the US Navy vessels, and dove into the water once more (again, tied up). A pirate freaked, and swung an AK in the Captain's direction. This was enough provocation for the Navy SEAL snipers, with a mandate directly from the US president, to open fire. All three pirates on the lifeboat were killed in seconds, and the fourth pirate was taken into custody. The SEALs then went to get him out of the water, and he's been flown to the USS Boxer to get medical attention and a good meal.

Capt. Phillips will probably get interviewed a number of times about the incident, but his behavior seems to indicate that he highly values not being a burden on his country/company/friends, not being a hostage that other people have to pay to bail out. Multiple times, he's put his life on the line to get away with minimal help, where sitting pretty would have had a much higher success rate of getting home.

His and his crew's behavior, along with the behavior and success of the US Navy, is likely to set a powerful precedent in the Horn of Africa. The US, 7 and a half years removed from 9/11, is still incredibly sensitive about hijacking, hostage-taking, and other acts perpetrated on its civilians by others. The US government, and the citizens under fire, will make life especially difficult for the individuals that are foolish enough to assault Americans. The response by all actors involved is impressive, both in execution and in manner. The US has just significantly raised the stakes for piracy in a world that once welcomed it through soft responses and an obsession with not stepping on toes.

Whether the US will take this incident and propel it to attack pirate sites in Somalia is somewhat unclear, but I think it's unlikely. I'm actually not sure what international waters treaties that the US has signed might say, but they probably don't involve land attacks, particularly since some form of sovereignty is largely assumed (and Somalia's sovereignty is mostly a joke). That said, if the US can plausibly project a strong likelihood of fatal failure to any pirates looking for vessels, then they'll start to deter pirates on the margins, which is a fine start.
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