Details and Implications of the US Navy Freeing Captain Richard Phillips from Somali Pirates


This post was originally created from live coverage of a Pentagon press conference (Sun 4 pm EST) by Vice-Admiral William Gortney (YouTube clip at end), and breaking news on CNN in the immediate hours following. Later updates are made as revisions or additions as heard on TV news.
Last update: Mon Apr 13, 10:03 pm EST.

Capt Phillips after rescue

Commander Frank Castellano of the USS Bainbridge and Captain Phillips after the latter's rescue

Background: Armed pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama container ship, armed with automatic weapons and small arms. The crew fought back and took the ship back. The Captain was captured and taken aboard the life boat from which this trauma as resulted. The Captain tried to jump Saturday and was shot at, but was not injured.

The Captain was rescued at 7:19 p.m. (12:19 p.m. ET) on Sunday, according to the US Navy, reported by CNN before this press conference. However, stories the captain jumped overboard and was rescued was false. There was only one attempt by the Captain to try and escape on Saturday. One pirate survived, believed to be the one injured in the original attack of the Maersk Alabama. The other three were shot and killed. The Captain was uninjured and in relatively good shape. President Obama is congratulating everyone involved, including the Captain for his bravery.

Story Synopsis (from press conference and other CNN reporting)

What happened was described below, with quite a few bits of new details that paints a different picture of what was went on.

During negotiations, several US Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) parachuted in snipers in the cover of darkness into the sea and made their way to the USS Bainbridge. Of course, the Bainbridge expected them but the pirates would not have known this was going on. The snipers, then, took spots in the fan tail of the Bainbridge around the clock, out of sight of the pirates aboard the life boats. They and this action, ultimately led to the events that free Captain Phillips.

During the negotiations, the USS Bainbridge apparently transported a rib (tiny vessel) back and forth to the life boat where the pirates were holding Captain Phillips, so there was was far more intimate contact than we knew of. Messages from the Captain’s family was passed to him, and vice-versa, during this time, including his wife’s message to him that they’d save him an Easter egg if his son didn’t eat it first, to which the Captain replied via a US Navy Admiral, ultimately, that his son should leave the eggs alone.

In the contact with the pirates, the one that ultimately survived this order, who might be as young as 16 and was the one injured in the original hijacking, was on-board the USS Bainbridge for treatment of his injuries. He was expressing a lot of doubt about the hostage taking, had had enough and didn’t want to go back, though it was not clear at this time if he ever went back. The Navy was trying to convince him to persuade his comrades to end the situation peacefully but his comrades did not want to. Things also got rather heated over the negotiations, possibly as a result of this and/or other reasons, with the pirates wanting quite a lot of money. However, the reported $2 million was neither confirmed nor denied by Vice-Admiral Gortney.

USS Bainbridge

USS Bainbridge

As for authority of action, President Barack Obama had given a “standing order” twice for the “on scene commander”, Commander Frank Castellano of the USS Bainbridge, to take military action as necessary if the Captain’s life seemed like it was in “imminent danger”. The President gave the order to take military action as needed on Good Friday at 8 pm, and then he authorized technical and additional resources as needed at 9:20 AM on Saturday. With Presidential standing authorization the USS Bainbridge Commander was the one who had operational authorization, so to speak, and he had to use it on a few seconds’ notice of the following scenario, as it turned out. That was how it all developed. From one report, the execution of the rescue was a highly professional operation where the snipers reported they had a clear shot at the target and the Bainbridge Commander would have had to give the order “initiate, initiate” before the snipers could shoot.

As time progressed, the seas got rougher and the weather deteriorated. The USS Bainbridge ended up towing the life boat with the pirates and Captain Phillips out of this area, just 25-30 meters (80-100 feet) behind.  This was because the life raft was bobbing up and down on the high seas, and putting it in the path of a moving ship minimized this effect to give US Navy SEALs snipers hiding in the fan tail of the USS Bainbridge a better shot. They had no intentions to shoot if Captain Phillips was in the line of fire, which would have been hard because the life raft was just 18 feet long, and one miss could spur the pirates to kill Captain Phillips.

At some point, the pirates lowered their AK-47 rifles downward at Captain Phillips, but their heads and shoulders could be seen. What else happened to differentiate this moment from another when the pirates would have pointed their guns at the Captain, it is not sure. That may never be made public because the Navy can’t be giving all the operational details away for another encounter. However, at this time, just after 7 pm local time after the sun had set so night vision goggles were being used, Bainbridge Commander Castellano determined that Captain Phillips’ life was in imminent danger and gave the order for the snipers to fire. The snipers determined they had a decent shot despite the distance and bobbing life boat, shot three times, killing three pirates with shots to the head. With the fourth pirate of the group being on the USS Bainbridge getting treatment for his injuries, doubting going back and possibly acting as a communicator in negotiations, Captain Phillips was out of danger and free to go. The Navy sent over a rib (tiny vessel) that Captain Phillips boarded after untying himself and it was reeled in to bring him aboard the USS Bainbridge. Of course, the remaining pirate then surrendered.

Could Hollywood have written a better story or ending?

The Captain seemed to be in fairly good condition after a shower and medical check-up. He declined food when offered upon his boarding the Bainbridge. He is now being transferred to the USS Boxer where there are better facilities and arrangements are being made to get him back to the United States as soon as possible. The surviving pirate is being treated humanely, treated for his injuries and given food and drink.

The fate of the pirates are not known exactly at this time. The Somali government will be consulted for the return of the dead pirates’ bodies. The Pentagon is consulting with the Dept of Justice on what legal options are available for prosecuting the surviving pirate, based on not just legal jurisdiction, but also available evidence and his particular actions during the ordeal. There is no international court or law that could be used to try the surviving pirate. However, US law allows it to take action on pirates who harmed its ships or citizens without interference from other countries. That is, the US doesn’t need permission from Somalia to bring the surviving pirate to justice as it pleases, and the Maersk Alabama had American citizens and registration. This is similar to what most countries have, by the way, not some American arrogance to take control just because its “property” was involved. The Maersk Alabama was declared a crime scene several days ago by the US government. Another option may be that the surviving pirate may also be put back into the Kenyan legal system, though it was not explained why other than that there was a lot of precedence for that. Meanwhile, CNN seems to be taking a public poll on what Americans should do with this pirate.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama has called Commander Castellano of the USS Bainbridge, talked to Captain Richard Phillips, and also his family, to offer his congratulations and commend them for their actions through this ordeal. The President released this statement just moments ago from time of posting:

I am very pleased that Captain Phillips has been rescued and is safely on board the USS Boxer. His safety has been our principal concern, and I know this is a welcome relief to his family and his crew.

I am also very proud of the efforts of the U.S. military and many other departments and agencies who worked tirelessly to secure Captain Phillips’ safe recovery.

We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region. To achieve that goal, we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.

I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.



Vice-Admiral Gortney stated that he believes the outcome of this incident could escalate the violence in the Sea of Aden area, particularly with regards to pirate reactions towards other crew members in future incidents. After all, blood was shed, those pirates do have other hostages and would have lots of reason and resolve to band together. If they don’t kill off hostages in revenge, for still hoping to get money from them, you can bet they will deal with future ship crews much more violently than now. They could get revenge for these killings later, but they will also learn from this incident not to leave their hostages so well off physically that they could try to escape, and that does not bold for future potential hostages.

Update: Monday, Apr 13, the day after this story’s original posting, Reuters already published a story with these quotes from the pirates that, in essence, backed up what I had said in vowing revenge.

“We were mourning for dead friends and then roaring planes came — grief upon grief. America has become our new enemy.”

“The French and the Americans will regret starting this killing. We do not kill, but take only ransom. We shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now,” Hussein, a pirate, told Reuters by satellite phone. Reference to the French is from an incident where their people killed pirates in rescuing hostages.

In the bigger picture, America could not have asked for a better outcome, including having some pirates killed, as much as some people not liking the fact anybody was killed. Having killed some pirates showed some toughness and sent a message that America meant business. Terrorists often think of Americans and those in the free world weak for expending so much resources over a life or two, but we win because we value life more than they do, not because we are weak to worry so much over each life.

America also managed to flaunt a little prowess in how it dealt with the situation, from the psychological of that young survivor, to the militaristic from the covert operations to the precision shooting with the snipers… and they haven’t even called in the big boys! Let’s hope they won’t have to because there won’t be any precision killings in such a case.

Of course, we are dealing with people who don’t fear death because death might even be better than the condition they believe themselves to be living in, so logical negotiations may not be effective. If they were logical, they wouldn’t justify taking hostages for money as being all right but killing, as a consequence of it, as not being all right. Hey, if you want to play the game, you’ve got to be man enough to, you know? You don’t set the rules and whine when you suddenly have to deal with consequences.

Sure, the outcome of this situation may well strengthen the pirates’ resolve and their cooperation, as the pirates did try to bring in additional support during the hostage taking via cell phones. However, at least for now, they know it’s not going to be as easy a road as they thought given the set back they had just been dealt.

So I predict more violence and more drastic reactions in the near future, but that we will get this resolved because the pirates will make the stupid decision they want to become big enough to be on the world stage. They weren’t happy sneaking around and jabbing the dragon, but that they had to awaken it, and so be it! The dragon has awaken, made its presence known, and will react more drastically as required in the future.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Reading Level: 10.6



Pentagon briefing YouTube video