President Obama had been in office less than a year when Navy SEAL snipers opened fire on a small lifeboat in the Gulf of Aden, killing three armed Somali pirates and freeing an American mariner, Richard Phillips. That April 2009 ordeal has since become the stuff of legend, outlined in a bestselling book that was developed into the 2013 Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips.”
Phillips met with the president in the Oval Office the following month. But it appears that will only take Obama so far. The captain is coming out in a public relations offensive against the White House’s new counter-piracy plan. It is time for the United States to “zero in on the pirates’ nests and eradicate them,” Phillips said in news release published Wednesday by a maritime officers union.
The new White House plan, released June 20, states that pirates require land-based support and access to weapons in order to hijack ships at sea. It suggests that piracy at sea can only be reduced if bases on shore are disrupted or dismantled, and says the United States “will work with other governments and international organizations to disrupt and dismantle pirate bases to the fullest extent permitted by U.S. and international law.”
But, in a news release published by the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, Phillips suggests that is not good enough. The governments of most of the countries where pirates operate “neither have the strong will nor resources to mount campaigns against these criminals,” Phillips said.
“Therefore, the onus is on the world’s industrialized nations to dedicate assets and attention to combat piracy as are afforded to the war on terrorism,” Phillips said. “What will it take to evoke the U.N. Security Council resolutions and finally, aggressively pursue pirates in domestic territorial waters and inland?”
Phillips could not immediately be reached for comment by Checkpoint. Another mariner with the union, Capt. Klaus Luhta, said the new plan — known fully as the United States Counter-piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan — does not specify that piracy is a threat to America’s national interest.
“When piracy is deemed a threat to national security interests that allows for immense presidential latitude, including military action,” Luhta said.
The comments come at a time when there has been a fundamental shift in global piracy. Phillips was captured in 2009, when there were a record number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and waters nearby off the coast of Somalia. At least 214 vessels were attacked that year in the region, resulting in at least 47 hijackings, according to reports at the time.
Pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa have plummeted since, dropping to just a handful in 2013. The International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre attributes the change there to increased military action, land-based piracy operations, and greater use of armed guards on board ships. The threat is still present, however, especially off the northern coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and in the southern Red Sea, the center says.
On the flip side, the waters off the coast of Indonesia have developed into a major trouble spot, especially in the Straits of Malacca. One report said there were 107 reports of piracy in the region last year, a 700 percent increase in five years. On June 30, for example, five robbers reportedly boarded an anchored ship in Indonesia carrying vehicles, according to the piracy reporting center. They tied and blindfolded one man, stole engine parts and then escaped.
Piracy also is still a significant issue off the western coast of Africa. The Gulf of Guinea and other waters off the coast of Nigeria are particularly at risk. Pirates there are “often violent and have attacked, hijacked and robbed vessels/kidnapped crews along the coast, rivers, anchorages, ports and surrounding waters,” the piracy reporting center says.
“Generally all waters in Nigeria remain risky,” says the center’s last update. “Vessels are advised to be vigilant as many attacks have gone unreported.”