On April 8, 2009, the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, loaded with some 17,000 metric tons of cargo and carrying a crew of 23, was in the Indian Ocean 300 miles from land and en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Four heavily armed Somali pirates approached in a Taiwanese fishing vessel they had hijacked two days before.

When the pirate alarm sounded on the cargo vessel—the crew had received anti-piracy training—chief engineer Mike Perry took 14 members of the crew into a secure room below decks while the remaining crew fired flares and activated fire hoses. They also swung the ship’s rudder, attempting to flood the skiff the pirates were using to approach the ship.

Captain Phillips

The captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, even faked a call to the U.S. Navy to try to suggest to the pirates that help would soon be on the way. While these efforts slowed the pirates down and even persuaded some of them to turn back, they did not keep one group of four pirates, all between 17 and 19 years old, from boarding the ship, where they quickly took Phillips hostage. (These events were the basis of the movie Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks.)

When one of the pirates, the likely leader of the group, named Abduwali Muse, went searching for the rest of the crew, he was overpowered and captured by Perry, sustaining a serious cut on his hand in the process. The pirates agreed to trade Phillips for Muse and leave the ship, but then reneged and took Philips hostage on board the Maersk Alabama’s well-equipped 28-foot lifeboat.

The Rescue

Early on April 9, a naval destroyer and frigate, the USS Bainbridge and Halyburton respectively, arrived on the scene and a standoff ensued, with the hijackers hoping to connect with fellow pirates holding additional hostages and eventually get Phillips to Somalia and hold him for ransom. But when the tumultuous seas forced them to accept a tow line from the Bainbridge, that goal seemed unlikely.

On April 10, a group of highly trained snipers from the elite Navy SEAL Team Six parachuted into nearby waters; taking positions on the fantail (or poop deck) at the stern of the Bainbridge, they trained their extremely accurate .30-caliber sniper rifles on the lifeboat where Phillips was being held by three pirates. (Muse was on board the Bainbridge receiving medical assistance for his wounded hand and acting as the chief negotiator for the pirates.)

The rules of engagement prevented the SEALs from firing until they were able to determine that Phillips was in danger, a standard that was met two days later when the SEALs saw the agitated pirates pointing their AK-47s at his head. In spite of bobbing seas and a distance of 25 to 30 yards, the SEAL snipers were able to kill all three pirates with clean shots to the head. U.S military quickly rescued and brought Phillips aboard the Bainbridge.

Just the Facts

  • Dates: April 12, 2009
  • Location: Indian Ocean, 240 miles southeast of Eyl, Somalia
  • U.S. Forces: Navy Seal Team Six
  • Enemy/Target: American hostage Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama
  • Equipment: Naval destroyer USS Bainbridge, frigate USS Halyburton, .30-caliber sniper rifles

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