The American merchant sailors who fought pirates to retake their US-flagged ship, which had been seized Wednesday in waters off Somalia, showed a stiff resolve against maritime piracy that the world community so far has not.
Merchant vessels and the global economy will continue to be at risk from ransom-seeking pirates until the maritime powers adopt – and enforce – a zero-tolerance policy to stop the hijackings, say maritime security experts.
With the ship's captain reported to be in pirates' hands, the unfinished drama casts a bright spotlight on increasingly insecure shipping lanes. The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship – which apparently involved the first hostage-taking of American merchant sailors in the pirate-infested waters off Somalia – at first appeared to end hours after the ordeal began, with the 20-member crew overpowering and detaining one pirate and others fleeing to the sea.
Then it was learned that the foiled pirates had kidnapped the ship's captain and were holding him hostage in a lifeboat. An American warship and a small fleet of other vessels had been dispatched to the scene, US officials reported Tuesday afternoon.
The Hollywood-worthy episode – the ship's crew used antipiracy training to retake the ship, then reported home on events via cellphone – puts renewed focus on Somalia, a lawless state run by Islamist extremists that provides safe harbor to gangs of pirates.
But it also is likely to cause a closer look world actions thus far to combat the problem. With ship seizures off Somalia tripling between 2007 and 2008, a consortium of international maritime powers, including the US, has increased patrols in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean. The patrols and stepped-up training of navies whose waters are seeing pirate activity rise are the result of measures the United Nations adopted in December. Three months into the international anti-piracy campaign, as many as 17 nations are participating in increased patrols, and more are expected to join, according to the Associated Press.
But more decisive action is needed if piracy is to be stopped, experts say.
"The bottom line is you have to stop them from being able to use their booty," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.
Among other things, he says, maritime powers should go after the pirates' bases of operation. In the case of the Somali pirates, he adds, that means taking seriously the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the pirates and the Shebab Islamist organization that controls Somalia.
The two groups do not seem to have an ideological link, says Mr. Gartenstein-Ross, but evidence suggests each benefits from the other: The pirates pay "taxes" for their haven and to avoid being shut down. The two groups have trained each other in martial and maritime skills, he adds.
More worrisome still, says Gartenstein-Ross, is the link Shebab has developed with Al Qaeda.
"If you take the communications we know exist between the two, add Al Qaeda's stated hope of bankrupting the global economy, and mix in the devastating impact of a skyrocketing price of oil because of some dramatic act of piracy against oil tankers, you see why we could wake up some day wishing we'd done a lot more to stop the Somali pirates."
Given the "ripple effects" of pirates' actions throughout the global economy, the world must do more to stop them, agrees Larry Howard, chairman of the Global Business and Transportation Department at State University of New York Maritime College. But the necessary international tools already exist in the 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea, he says.
"It grants any signatory, and that includes the US, the authority to chase pirates down, try them, and deal with them," Mr. Howard says. "We don't need new laws; all we need is the political will to do it."
The Alabama hijacking also suggests that heightened security concerns have led to maritime crews assuming a more alert and defensive posture.
"The orders used to be to the crew and passengers of a hijacked plane to do what the bad guys want you to do, but the events of 9/11 changed all that," says SUNY Maritime College's Howard. "By the same token, [this event] may have served notice that we're not going to be passive with this modern-day pirate activity either."
The Alabama's crew may have been especially prepared for the pirates who tried to take their ship. The ship's second in command is a graduate of the Massachusetts maritime Academy – where the mariner's father teaches a course in how to deal with pirates, notes Howard.
Merchant ships are unarmed, he says, but crews are trained in the use of high-pressure fire hoses and other resources onboard for turning back or subduing pirates.