That Somali Pirate Attack

The United States is crowing over having rescued a US ship’s captain from Somali pirates and killed three of the pirates in the process. The news is all over the world's television stations and the captain, Richard Phillips, and his crew are being welcomed home as heroes. What the US has not admitted, however, is the role of the ship, the Maersk line container ship "Maersk Alabama," let alone what this latest exercise in American firepower and exceptionalism means for the 120 or so mostly Asian crews of the vessels currently held captive by the Somali pirates.

Prime facie evidence suggests that far from being on a food aid delivery to Africa, the Alabama was engaged in secret US government department work, perhaps delivery of arms from bases in the Gulf to African destinations. Likely too the crew was literally asleep at the wheel to have been caught by the pirates. But the Somalis were unlucky to have unknowingly captured a ship not only crewed by Americans but with a flock of US naval vessels to come to the rescue.

What the US and other western media fail to point out if that there was always something very unusual about this ship. It was a fast, medium-size container ship owned by the Danish line Maersk, flying a US flag and crewed by American sailors.

When was the last time anyone met a US merchant seaman in an Asian or African port? Since when did Maersk, one of the world’s largest container lines, start registering under the American flag? It is hard to find a European, let alone an American, even captaining a large container vessel let alone providing the crew. The fact of an American crew is an even bigger giveaway that the Alabama was not a normal container voyage. It had to be carrying US official cargo.

The Maersk Alabama also has a curious history. The US-flagged container ship is owned and operated by Maersk Line Ltd., the Norfolk, VA- based uS subsidiary of Denmark's AP Moller-Maersk Line LKtd., whch operated several ships operated by the UYS under the Department of Defense's Military Security Program. The Maersk Alabama was first the Maersk Alva, built in Taiwan and registered under the Danish flag in 1998, until 2004 when it was — most unusually — re-registered under a US flag.

This followed the strange case of being detained in Kuwait on a writ brought by some aggrieved parties until released on Maersk’s payment of $1.84 million. Were the seizure, payment and re-registration under the US flag somehow connected? There is no ready answer but questions need asking.

The propaganda account has it that the ship was carrying 5,000 thousand tons of food aid for Somalia. Maybe that is true. But a 17,000 ton vessel could carry a lot more than that. And bulk grain and vegetable oils, the normal basics of food aid, are not normally delivered by container ship. Least of all do they originate from the Gulf region, an importer of food. Arms are the more likely contents of most of those containers.

Then there is the issue of how the Alabama came to be captured in the first instance. For sure, these are dangerous water and many vessels have been seized before. But container ships are much faster than the bulk carriers, tankers and general cargo vessels which have been the main victims of the pirates. And the Alabama, with a speed of about 21 knots, can move considerably faster than the 15 knots that are about the top speed pirates can muster when trying to board. It should have been able to outrun and out-maneuver most pirates, as well as having measures to prevent boarding.

With their colleagues now dead, the pirates will likely assume that Americans negotiate in bad faith, launching an attack while one of the pirates was aboard a US ship supposedly negotiating a ransom for their one remaining hostage, the Alabama’s captain. To many non-Americans, and particularly the Asian sailors who will now face the wrath of the pirates, this sounds much like the kind of one sided deals by which the white settlers seized the land from the indigenous inhabitants, making war while claiming to negotiate treaties.

Of course the Somali pirates are a menace. But while this kind of American bravura to rescue other Americans plays well on CNN and even on Fox it is unlikely to do anything to deter piracy. And it is a real threat to the lives of the 120 or so captive sailors from previous hijackings. But do not expect the western media to worry too much about a bunch of Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Ukranians etc.