The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama 10 years ago: the threat is still real

What has changed in a decade? Could another U.S. ship be hijacked today?

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This month 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 on April 9, 2009—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 in a decade?  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 the Maritime Institute of Graduate Studies (MITAGS) in Linthicum Heights, MD, 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 armed security details?  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 components. “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 Captain Phillips believe the terrorist threat to ships – including those flying the U.S. flag – is now greater than the threat of piracy.

Finally, it’s important to note that this news comes from the Captain Richard Phillips Lane Kirkland Maritime Trust Strategic Plan, whose  purpose of iis to enhance the image and reputation, and promote the long-term stability of the industry and the U.S. Merchant Marine.

With nonsensical talk about abolishing the Jones Act, this group does much to preserve the heritage and unique contributions of U.S.-flag carriers to the nation’s security.


About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [ protected]

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