For now, the American government can relax -- the crew of the Maersk Alabama is in control again of a freighter after an attack by pirates on Wednesday. The crew overpowered its four hijackers and arrested one of them, according to the Pentagon, and the Maersk shipping line has confirmed that the ship is under the crew's command. Three pirates jumped overboard and fled, according to wire reports on Wednesday evening.
But there were conflicting reports about the ship's captain. A crew member told CNN that Captain Richard Phillips was in the pirates' custody, on a smaller boat. Negotiations to free him were underway. "We're offering what we can," said Ken Quinn, the Maersk Alabama's second mate. The crew still hopes for help from the US Navy, which has sent a destroyer to the scene.
Despite the captain's situation, the crew's robust response ended the latest high-profile assault on a freighter by pirates off the coast of Somalia. For the first time a crew seemed organized enough to overwhelm the armed kidnappers.
But the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama is also emblematic of a new trend in the series of pirate attacks near Somalia. The high number of international warships in the Gulf of Aden has apparently driven the pirates further afield, making them even harder to catch.
Obama Under Pressure?
The Maersk Alabama attack at first put 20 sailors under the control of the four armed men, and the hijacking of an American ship put US President Barack Obama's administration under pressure, even if Somali pirates have tended to treat hostages well in the past, and only seem interested in ransom.
The American public would have expected Obama to respond. In the last few years, America has taken a hard line against kidnappings of American citizens. Paying ransom -- a routine strategy in Europe -- is officially out of the question in Washington. The White House often risks the lives of hostages before it accepts blackmail from kidnappers. For the same reason, the US is quicker to try to free hostages by force.
The White House initially said little about this hostage drama, which was the largest kidnapping of American citizens in the last several years. The government was observing the case and communicating with Maersk, according to sources. Maersk has a close relationship with the US government because the American shipping line -- owned by the Danish Moller-Maersk Group -- has carried US weapons and secret technology around the world.
Shortly after the hijacking, in fact, experts worried that the Maersk Alabama had a cargo of weapons, which would have made the situation riskier. But the suspicion was unsubstantiated. The ship reportedly was carrying relief cargo bound for Mombasa.
An armed response by the US looked plausible, since a number of American warships patrol the region as part of the "Joint Task Force 151," meant to protect commercial ships in the bottleneck routes through the Gulf of Aden. The Maersk Alabama was hijacked early Wednesday morning around 450 kilometers (280 miles) from the Somali harbour town of Eyl, a known pirate nest. The nearest US warship was 555 kilometers away, according to American sources.
But the military said nothing about possible operations. A Navy spokesman simply said the freighter's movements were being closely monitored. Following a giant freighter by satellite tends to be easy after a pirate attack, because most hijackers make for a Somali harbor where they have complete sway. Then, as a rule, a translator comes on board, to negotiate a ransom with the shipping company.
A Simple New Strategy
Despite the crew's successful defense of the Maersk Alabama, experts worry about a growing trend in pirate attacks. The freighter was taken in waters far from the Gulf of Aden, where neither the US Navy, NATO nor the EU-led "Operation Atalanta" sends patrols. One German naval officer says this development shows the warships have had an effect. "The pirates have learned something, unfortunately," he said.
The new strategy is both simple and successful. Instead of dodging destroyers from the US and Europe in their long wooden skiffs, they just operate outside the patrol zone -- either off the coast of Kenya or closer to Somali shores, where commercial ships have been warned not to sail. But the Maersk Alabama disregarded this warning, perhaps to save fuel.
Over the last few days the spike in new pirate attacks has been dramatic. Ten ships, including the MV Hansa Stavager, a German freighter, have been taken. A total of 20 ships remain in the hands of pirates. Military officials were encouraged in February and March by the success of international efforts in the Gulf of Aden, but now they are having to watch as the pirates broaden the battlefield.
The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center, based in Kuala Lumpur, has demanded a wider coalition effort by international navies. "With more patrol ships we can beat back the pirates before they arm themselves further through ransom payments," IMB spokesman Noel Choong told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He said the US and NATO, in particular, should send new ships as quickly as possible.