The Pirate Hunters

As buccanneering is back with a vengeance, stepped-up law enforcement and high-tech tools work to help protect shipping on the high seas

In the Persian Gulf, authorities are concerned about terrorism as well as piracy. Coalition vessels (the Coast Guard cutter Aquidneck, behind Coast Guardsman Zachary Coone) patrol exclusion zones around Iraq's Al Basrah and Khawr Al Amaya terminals, where tankers take on millions of barrels of oil daily. (US Coast Guard)
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"Somalia is chaotic, with gangs of heavily armed men roaming around the land and its seas," James Mriria, a strapping sailor, told me in the Kenyan port of Mombasa. He said he had spent four months in 2001 as a hostage of Somali pirates as they haggled with the Italian owner of a fishing trawler they had hijacked. The bandits, he said, fed their guests just enough food to keep them alive, and often beat them with rifle butts. "It was hell," Mriria said.

The pirates who tried to take the Delta Ranger would head for Somalia too.

In pursuit of the hijacked dhow, the Churchill had the advantage of surprise. The pirates "couldn't see us over the horizon" during the night, the ship's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Nilsson, told me in a telephone interview. But at first light the destroyer deliberately showed itself to the crew of the dhow, and the pirates took off to the west. Somalia's territorial waters—from which the Churchill was barred by international law—were 80 nautical miles away.

Nilsson had no doubt this was the right ship. He had gotten a description of it from the captain of the Delta Ranger. In time he would see through his binoculars the 16 Indian crewmembers, on the fo'c'sle, holding up a piece of plywood on which they had spray-painted: SIR PLEASE HELP US.

"We repeatedly radioed and asked [the dhow] to halt," Nilsson said. When the pirates refused, the U.S. sailors called to them over an amplified megaphone, without effect. The chase went on all morning and into the afternoon. With Somali waters only four hours away, the Churchill closed to within 500 yards of the dhow and fired across its bow with its 25-millimeter chain guns. "That got the pirates' attention, and they stopped," Nilsson said.

Some of the Churchill's crew boarded the dhow and took everyone on it into custody. Aboard the destroyer, a Hindi-speaking member of the Churchill crew questioned the dhow's captain. "She found that the pirates had captured the dhow six days earlier and had beaten and imprisoned the crew," Nilsson said. "They'd given the Indians no food during that time and had threatened to kill them if they resisted."

Nilsson said that he had seen the Somalis throw unidentified "objects" over the side during the night. Many pirates try to ditch their weapons in the belief that it would provide less evidence for prosecution, but if that were the case aboard the dhow, it didn't work: the boarding party found an AK-47 stashed in the wheelhouse.

Later that afternoon, the USS Nassau, a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship and the flagship of the expeditionary strike group to which the Churchill was attached, caught up with the destroyer. Ten Somali pirates were taken to the brig of the larger ship. After consulting with the U.S. Central Command, the Nassau took the Somalis to Mombasa, where Kenyan authorities arrested them and charged them with piracy.

Keeping the world's sea lanes safe for commerce is one goal of what the Navy calls Maritime Security Operations, or MSO. Another is to prevent sea-based terrorism. Choong had told me that piracy was prevalent even in the hazardous waters off Iraq in the northern Persian Gulf.

To get there, I flew to the desert kingdom of Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which operates in the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. From there I caught a Navy Desert Hawk helicopter for a two-hour flight to the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, my base for a three-day visit. Along the way, the chopper flew fast and low over a sparkling green sea dotted with coral islands, fishing dhows and oil rigs. With the cruiser steaming along, the pilot put us smoothly down on the aft deck.


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