Pirates had not captured a ship sailing under the American flag since the 1820s until April 8, 2009, when the MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked off the coast of Somalia. The high-profile incident drew worldwide attention to the problem of piracy, commonly believed to be a thing of the past, in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
Decades of instability in Somalia and the accompanying lack of policing in its territorial waters led to a resurgence of piracy in the region that peaked in the late 2000s. Just a day before the attack, the Maersk Alabama received warning from the United States government to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia, but Captain Richard Phillips kept the ship about 240 miles from the coast, a decision which was later criticized by members of his crew. On April 8, the crew saw a skiff carrying four armed pirates approaching the ship and initiated the protocol for such an event. Chief Engineer Mike Perry got most of the crew to a safe room and managed to swamp the pirates’ craft by swinging his ship’s rudder, but the pirates were nonetheless able to board and take Phillips hostage. After one of their number was injured fighting with the ship’s crew, the other three pirates fled in a lifeboat, taking Phillips with them in the hopes of using him as a bargaining chip.
Early the next morning, the destroyer USS Bainbridge and another U.S. Navy vessel arrived on the scene. What followed was a three-day standoff, with the pirates holding Phillips in the lifeboat. Attempts to negotiate failed, and at one point the pirates fired (harmlessly) at the destroyer. Finally, on April 12, with authorization from recently inaugurated President Barack Obama, Navy SEAL snipers opened fire on the lifeboat. In a stunning display of accuracy, the SEALS firing from a ship’s deck through the windows of the tiny boat hit all three pirates in the head, killing them, while leaving Phillips unharmed.
The surviving pirate, Abduwali Muse, was taken into custody and later sentenced to over 33 years in U.S. prison—though he was tried as an adult, he and the other hijackers were reportedly all teenagers at the time of the attack. The incident received international attention, bringing the problem of modern-day piracy to many people’s attention for the first time. Phillips’ story was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Piracy remained an issue in the region—the Maersk Alabama herself was the target of four more pirate attacks between 2009 and 2011, each of which was repelled by armed security teams.