Belmont Club

How should the crew have responded?

Many experts agree. That what happened on the Maersk Alabama should never happen again.

CHICAGO — Maritime experts reacting on Thursday to the stirring tale of 20 unarmed U.S. crew members wresting back control of their hijacked freighter from armed pirates off Somalia agreed on one thing: they were lucky. Some were critical, saying the crew may have disregarded standard procedure and taken a dangerous risk in fighting their attackers. …

According to a set of best practices for ships off Somalia as laid out by 11 international agencies including the International Maritime Bureau issued in February, when attacked by pirates a vessel should speed up, take evasive action and even turn fire hoses on their attackers. But once boarded, crews should “offer no resistance; this could lead to unnecessary violence and harm to crew.” …

John Wick, managing director of corporate risk management firm International Security Solutions Ltd, said the crew was very lucky. “It’s all very gung ho and it’s like watching a good movie,” he said. “But what the crew did was potentially very dangerous and could have gone very wrong.” … Wick said in general Somali pirates have treated captives well and a system is in place for ransoming captured crews.

“My advice is to run like hell,” Wick said. “If you’re taken, let the system kick in and take care of you.”

Although there was widespread public rejoicing at the successful mission, some experts sent up a collective groan of dismay. The Telegraph reports that “The dramatic rescue of an American cargo ship captain kidnapped by Somali pirates may have put the lives of hundreds of other hostages in danger and raised the stakes for future hijacks, experts have warned.” Like a bully who finds himself unable to vent his rage on anyone except by kicking the neighborhood stray dog, the pirates may be tempted to take things out on more vulnerable prey than US flagged ships, which have the USN to call upon. Some have even accused the US of precipitating “guerilla warfare” on the high seas.

“This has now changed everything, what we are now dealing with is maritime guerilla warfare,” maritime security expert Nick Davis told Sky News Online. “Your average Caucasian white guy does not want to be operating in the Indian Ocean – because his card is now marked. “I would not want to be on an American-flagged ship in the Indian Ocean at the moment, that’s for sure.”

He believes the vowed revenge attacks could also put European crew at risk.

If only the US had gone meekly along and coughed up, then all would be well. But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Fred C. Iklé, a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writing in the Washington Post believes that the “experts” themselves are the problem.

Start by blaming the timorous lawyers who advise the governments attempting to cope with the pirates such as those who had been engaged in a standoff with U.S. hostage negotiators in recent days. These lawyers misinterpret the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Geneva Conventions and fail to apply the powerful international laws that exist against piracy. The right of self-defense — a principle of international law — justifies killing pirates as they try to board a ship.

Nonetheless, entire crews are unarmed on the ships that sail through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Shipowners pretend that they cannot trust their crews with weapons, but the facts don’t add up. For one thing, in the United States most adults except felons are allowed to have guns, and the laws of many other nations also permit such ownership. Even if owners don’t want everyone aboard their ships to be carrying weapons, don’t they trust the senior members of their crews? Why couldn’t they at least arm the captain and place two experienced and reliable police officers on board? …

Furthermore, the U.N. Security Council should prohibit all ransom payments. If the crew of an attacked ship were held hostage, the Security Council could authorize a military blockade of Somalia until the hostages were released.

Cowardice will not defeat terrorism, nor will it stop the Somali pirates. If anything, continuing to meet the pirates’ demands only acts as an incentive for more piracy.

My guess is that despite the recent upbeat mood, following on the rescue of Captain Phillips by the Navy SEALs, that a policy of nonresistance will be hard to overturn. In the coming months, some merchant crew may try to imitate the actions of the Maersk Alabama and suffer terribly at the hands of pirates who may be determined to inflict an object lesson on the shipowners. With their humiliation at the hands of the USN, the pirates have temporarily lost their most powerful weapon: terror. They will be eager to regain it.