25 de octubre de 2013

Captain Phillips: a hero?

I'm not a film critic. A mere amateur at most. Therefore, the analysis I propose in the next lines will not aim the work of a director, a few actors or a soundtrack composer. I will try to speak about something I know a little more: Somali piracy. I had occasion to see Captain Phillips some days ago. It left me a bittersweet taste. I actually enjoyed more the documentary Stolen Seas or the Danish film A Hijacking. In any case, Hollywood has dared to show Somali piracy. And thanks for that.

Captain Phillips narrates the story of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship American flag, boarded by four Somali pirates in 2009. The assault occurred around 300 miles off the Somali coast (see image).

The first American-flagged ship hijacked by pirates in the modern era. Crew was American too. The pirates captured Captain Richard Phillips and several other crew members after boarding. The vessel experienced an unusual situation. Five hours after being hijacked, the seamen on watch at the time stabbed one pirate in the hand. The captured pirate was the band's leader. The two sides agreed to exchange hostages. The crew released their hostage. But the pirates refused to let Captain free, holding him in the lifeboat.

An American destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, was in contact with the container ship. President Obama authorized the use of force to free Phillips if his life was in danger. US navy special forces were dropped by parachute at night close to the destroyer. The action came as one of the four pirates aboard the USS Bainbridge, supposedly negotiating. Vice admiral William Gortney, commander of the US fifth fleet, said that when all three pirates where in their sights with their heads and shoulders exposed the sharpshooters opened fire simultaneously hitting each of the pirates in the head.

It was the first time in modern history that the United States had custody a pirate who had attacked an American citizen.

The movie is based upon the book that Captain Richard Phillips wrote in 2010, entitled A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS , and Dangerous Days at Sea.

When Captain comes to the port of Salalah, in Oman, is worried. We must tighten the security, he says. Doors and passageways must be closed to prevent easy access. But here the first surprise of the film: the day before the hijacking the vessel suffered a boarding attempt. It failed because the engine of the skiff handled by pirates was broken. This attempt is produced when sailors participate in a security drill to counter a pirate attack. Most of the crew members locked themselves in the engine room. Captain and officers remain on the bridge. The reluctance with which the crew performed the drill is obvious... until they are surprised by the attack, of course.

One member of the crew, Matt Fisher, sent an email to a colleague days after the incident: “The pirates got up to the bridge very quickly once they were onboard. We had a locked cage door over the ladder well from main deck, but it only took a second for them to shoot it off. They then got to the bridge up the outside ladders”. Fisher wrote that Captain Phillips and three other sailors stayed on the bridge when the pirates arrived. One sailor kept watch in the engine control room, he said, while another “was out on deck tracking the pirates' movement”. “We kept swinging the rudder side to side"”, Fisher wrote. “The pirates' boat capsized, though I'm not sure exactly when or what caused it. After about 20 minutes, the engine was killed, I don't know by whom”. Fisher said the sailors were safe, since the pirates had no grenades and would never have been able break through with only firearms. The only problem, he said, was the heat and a shortage of water. An obvious planning error. But the Captain did not think about it. How is it possible if the ship had suffered an attack just a few hours earlier?

Learned lessons? Yes. Listen to Fisher: “Have a well-fortified location with food and water supply. Kill all the lights. Leave the alarms going, the noise helped cover our movements through the house. Flashlights and radios are very handy, as well as the sound-powered phone”. This strategy, called safe room or citadel, has avoided in recent years tens of hijackings. Pirates board the ship, but they are unable to take control because the vessel crew has all successfully sought refuge. Pirates attempt to gain access to citadels by forcing locks, by removal of hinges and by pulling off a door utilising ships tools. If they don’t gain access, they will leave the ship.

By the day of the final assault fires hoses are activated to prevent pirates to gain access to the ship deck. One of them does not work. The first officer tried to repair it just in the attack putting his life at risk. A drill or a security plan, should not have included a complete check of fire fighting equipment? By the gap left by this malfunctioning hose pirates will gain access to the deck.

John Reinhart, the President and CEO of Maersk Line, said during a news conference: “The Maersk Alabama’s crewmembers were trained to deal with pirate attacks”. Really?

Some of Phillips’s former crew members have presented lawsuits against the owners of the hijacked freighter. His lawyer recently said: the real heroes are the members of the U.S. Navy who rescued the Captain. According to the law firm, “the pirate hijacking would never have taken place if not for the negligence of the captain, shipping company, and ship operator”.

In a moment of the film, Captain Phillips is reading some piracy reports. What could they say? The following map shows the attacks in 2009 near the position where Alabama was hijacked. Hijack locations appear in red, failed attempts in yellow, and suspicious approaches in purple.

As you can see, the risk was extremely high. Even more. If we analyze piracy attacks in the area since 2005, we have the following map.

In another moment of the film, after the first attack, the crew begged Captain Phillips not to go so close to the Somali coast. Captain answers: around 300 miles there is a piracy group. Around 600 miles there is another one. True. But Captain should know that over 600 miles the chances of being hijacked were low. Were there economic reasons to sail close to the coast? Cost of fuel, for example?

Even more, three days before the attack, Somali pirates had hijacked five vessels (see image):

A week later of the Alabama attack, pirates failed to board another American vessel: the bulk carrier Liberty Sun.  Pirates in a skiff armed with automatic weapons and RPG approached the ship. Ship increases speed, took evasive manoeuvres and crew activated fire hoses. The Liberty Sun's 20-man crew hid in the engine room when the fireworks began and stayed there until a U.S. Navy force arrived. Liberty Sun thwarted the hijacking. What about the Maersk Alabama?

In my opinion, Captain Phillips was a hero after the hijacking. But, could he put into practice more anti piracy measures to prevent pirates to gain access to the desk?  Thwarting the hijacking: Isn’t that the real heroism?

In response to these two attacks on U.S. flagged vessels, the United States Coast Guard issued the Maritime Security Directive 104-6 (rev. 2). U.S. flagged vessels were required to submit security plans for vessels that operate in high risk waters and these vessels should have security protocols for terrorism, piracy, and armed robbery against ships that meet the performance standards in this directive.

Maersk Alabama was attacked by Somali pirates four times more. In November of 2009, September of 2010, March and May of 2011. The ship thwarted all them. How? Using armed guards to deter pirates. Nowadays, over 80% of the ships attacked have private armed security teams aboard. 

©Fernando Ibáñez. 
Director of online course: Modern Maritime Piracy: The Case of Somalia in International Institute for Defence & Security: http://www.cisde.es/ficha_curso_en?id=18

Co-author of Analysis of the Somali pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean (2005-2011): Evolution and Modus OperandiJournal of the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies. Madrid, 2013 [In English]http://revista.ieee.es/index.php/ieee/article/view/36/75

Author of The threat of maritime piracy to international security: the case of Somalia. Ministry of Defence, Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies. Collection of Doctoral Thesis, Madrid, 2013 [In Spanish]: http://www.portalcultura.mde.es/publicaciones/publicaciones/Defensa_y_Seguridad/publicacion_4066.html

2 comentarios:

  1. Dear Mr. Ibanez: you write so clearly! Congratulations for your deep knowledge and display!

  2. Thank you very much for your kind words. Greetings from Spain.