The movie Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, is based on a true story: In April 2009, Somali pirates boarded the cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast. Captain Richard Phillips offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the crew’s safety. What followed were five harrowing days until Phillips was rescued by the U.S. Navy.
Phillips was hailed as a hero for saving the ship and his crew.
The captain went on to write a book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, which became the basis of the movie.
The movie might make you wonder: Is piracy still a problem? And how big a problem? Here are some perspectives from Jay Bahadur, author of The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World and an expert on piracy in the region.
(Spoiler alert: minor plot twists from the movie are revealed.)
1. Piracy is not as common as it was a few years ago, but it remains a huge problem on the high seas.
“The big difference from when I wrote the book [in 2011] was a trend that started around 2012 of using armed guard attachments on ships,” Bahadur said, noting that Phillips’s crew was barred legally from having weapons onboard. Now many ship owners hire armed guards, many of whom were trained in the military. “It made all the difference,” Bahadur said. “The use of armed guard attachments on ships really went up, especially for vessels containing lucrative goods.”
The use of armed guards has reduced piracy along the East African coast, an area that used to be a pirate hot spot. But that doesn’t mean piracy rates have fallen.
“West African piracy has gone up a lot,” Bahadur noted. “In south Africa, oil ship piracy has really escalated. The coast off of Brazil is becoming big.”
2. Pirates are pretty picky about their bounty.
In Captain Phillips, the pirates won’t accept anything less than millions of dollars, even when offered $30,000 from a safe.
According to Bahadur, that’s not too far from the truth—pirates prefer cash. And their second choice is valuable goods. They tend to target large ships full of valuables like oil and chemicals. That’s because they can easily sell such things so they have money for what they really want to buy. (see #3).
3. Much of the loot goes into purchasing a drug called khat.
In the movie, the pirates chew an addictive, bitter leaf from Kenya and Ethiopia known as khat, often arguing over who gets it.
That’s a pretty accurate portrayal of pirate life, says Bahadur. In fact, money and goods from cargo ships primarily go toward two products: khat … Land Cruisers.
Bahadur finds it ironic that pirates steal millions of dollars but very little of it goes back to their homes.
“The money really goes back to Ethiopia and Kenya [for khat] or, for Land Cruisers, to Dubai,” Bahadur said. “[Piracy] doesn’t stimulate the local economy.”
4. The economy of the Somali coastline, where most of the pirates in the movie are from, is pretty depressed.
There aren’t many options for Somali peasants living along the coast, certainly none as lucrative as plundering a well-stocked cargo ship.
Working as a day laborer is a common occupation. “If you have your own gun, you can [be hired] as security,” Bahadur said.
Few Somalis fish. “There’s no cultural emphasis on it,” said Bahadur. “It’s considered a low-class activity.”
The misconception that Somalis often fish was almost deadly for Captain Phillips. In the movie, the British Coast Guard tells Phillips that the approaching Somali ship was probably a fishing vessel and so he should calm down but run through basic emergency procedures because “chances are, they’re just fishermen.” Clearly, they weren’t!
5. Pirate territory should be avoided … by many hundreds of miles.
Nine members of Phillips’s crew have taken legal action, claiming Phillips and the company that sent the Maersk Alabama along the Somali coast were negligent.
Ships are told to sail several hundred miles away from the coast of Africa to avoid pirate-infested waters. The Maersk Alabama was only about 250 miles off the coast—a distance Bahadur says was uncomfortably close to the coast.
Phillips isn’t specifically named in the suit—the crew members are suing the company, not the captain—but it raises the question of whether there is a “safe” distance from pirate territory.
For Bahadur, regardless of who was at fault, there is no question that the ship was treading dangerous waters.
“He was directly east of a pirate base,” Bahadur said. “That’s why the ship was captured, right off the biggest pirate base.”
Still, many, including President Obama, view Phillips as a hero, citing the lack of deaths on board as proof of his courage.