Special Operations

Maersk Alabama Hijacking (2009)

The Maersk Alabama hijacking was a series of events involving piracy that began with four Somali pirates seizing the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama 240 nautical miles (440 km; 280 mi) southeast of the Somalia port city of Eyl. This event ended with the Action of April 12, 2009. It was the sixth vessel in a week to be attacked by pirates who had previously extorted ransoms in the tens of millions of dollars. Although reported to be the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the Second Barbary War in 1815, other incidents had occurred as late as 1821.


The ship, carrying a crew of 21 in addition to 17,000 metric tons of cargo, was headed for Mombasa, Kenya. On April 8, 2009, four pirates boarded the ship, hijacking it in the process.

According to second mate Ken Quinn, who spoke by telephone to CNN, the pirate’s skiff overturned during boarding the Alabama early on Wednesday, April 8. As the pirates were boarding the ship, the crew members locked themselves in the engine room.

A still frame from an unmanned aerial vehicle of a 28-foot lifeboat holding Phillips and his captors.
A still frame from an unmanned aerial vehicle of a 28-foot lifeboat holding Phillips and his captors.

The crew soon used “brute force” to retake control of the ship, and overpowered the leader of the pirates. The ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, 53, surrendered himself to ensure his crew’s safety. The crew attempted to trade the pirate they had captured and tied up for twelve hours for the captain, but after the crew released their captive, the pirates refused to honor the agreement. They fled in one of the ship’s covered lifeboats with nine days of food rations and took Phillips with them, as the crew had control of the ship’s steering from the engine room.

On April 8, 2009, the destroyer USS Bainbridge was dispatched to the Gulf of Aden in response to a hostage situation, and reached the Maersk Alabama early on April 9.

The Alabama was then escorted from the scene under armed guard towards its original destination in Mombasa, Kenya. CNN and FOX quoted sources stating that the pirates’ strategy was to await the arrival of additional hijacked vessels carrying more pirates and additional hostages to use as human shields.


A stand-off ensued between the USS Bainbridge and the pirates’ lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama from April 9, 2009, where they held the captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, hostage. The warship was several hundred yards away, with rescue helicopters and lifeboats, but kept its distance, out of the pirates’ range of fire. A P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft secured aerial footage and reconnaissance. Radio communication between the two ships was established. Four foreign vessels held by pirates headed towards the lifeboat. A total of 54 hostages were on two of the ships, citizens of China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan.

On April 10, 2009, Phillips attempted to escape from the lifeboat but was recaptured after the captors fired shots. The pirates then threw a phone—and a two-way radio dropped to them by the U.S. Navy—into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehow using the equipment to give instructions to the captain. The U.S. dispatched other warships, including the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton and the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, to the site off the Horn of Africa. The pirates’ strategy was to link up with their comrades, who were holding Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages, and get Phillips to Somalia, where they could hide him, making it difficult to stage a rescue, giving the pirates more leverage and a stronger negotiating position. Anchoring near shore would allow them to land quickly if attacked. Negotiations were ongoing between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who was under the direction of FBI hostage negotiators. The captors were also communicating with other pirate vessels by satellite phone.

However, negotiations broke down hours after the pirates fired on a small United States Navy vessel that had tried to approach the lifeboat not long after sunrise Saturday in the Indian Ocean. The American boat did not return fire and “did not want to escalate the situation”.

“We are safe and we are not afraid of the Americans. We will defend ourselves if attacked”, one of the pirates told Reuters by

The aftermath of the SEAL operation to rescue Phillips.
The aftermath of the SEAL operation to rescue Phillips.

satellite phone. Phillips’ family had gathered at his farmhouse in Vermont awaiting a resolution to the situation.

On Saturday, April 11, 2009, the Maersk Alabama arrived in the port of Mombasa, Kenya under U.S. military escort. An 18-man security team was on board. The FBI then secured the ship as a crime scene.

Commander Castellano stated that as the winds picked up, tensions rose among the pirates and “we calmed them” and persuaded the pirates to be towed by the Bainbridge.

On Sunday, April 12, 2009, Capt. Richard Phillips was rescued, reportedly in good condition, from his pirate captors. The commander of United States Fifth Fleet Vice Admiral William E. Gortney reported the rescue began when Commander Frank Castellano, captain of the Bainbridge, determined that Phillips’ life was in imminent danger and ordered the action. President Barack Obama had previously given standing orders to take action if it was determined Phillips’ life was in immediate danger. The Vice Admiral reported that U.S. Navy SEAL snipers, reportedly from SEAL Team Six, on the Bainbridge’s fantail opened fire and killed the three pirates remaining in the lifeboat with a simultaneous volley of three shots. The SEALs had arrived Friday afternoon after being parachuted into the water near the Halyburton, a guided missile frigate, which later joined with the Bainbridge. At the time, the Bainbridge had the lifeboat under tow, approximately 25 to 30 yards astern.

Captain Phillips, right, after being rescued by theUS Navy.
Captain Phillips, right, after being rescued by theUS Navy.

A fourth pirate, Abduhl Wal-i-Musi, was aboard the USS Bainbridge negotiating a ransom and was taken into custody. Teenage Abduhl Wal-i-Musi has been brought to New York to face trial on charges including piracy under the law of nations, conspiracy to seize a ship by force, conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, and firearms related charges. The bodies of the three dead pirates were turned over by the US Navy to unidentified recipients in Somalia the last week of April 2009.

The U.S. Navy evacuated Captain Phillips via rigid-hulled inflatable boat to the USS Bainbridge and then flew him by helicopter to the USS Boxer for medical evaluation. In response to the rescue, Somali pirate commander Abdi Garad issued a threat to attack American interests in the region.

Captain Phillips’ crew said they were able to escape because Phillips had offered himself to the pirates as a hostage U.S. President Barack Obama said, “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.”


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