MOMBASA, Kenya — A day after the U.S. military killed three pirates and rescued an American sea captain, Somali pirates threatened to retaliate by killing captured U.S. seamen and the Pentagon said there's little it can do to stop future attacks.
Crewmembers of the freighter Maersk Alabama, in their first formal remarks to reporters, gathered at the dockside in Mombasa Monday and called on President Barack Obama to take a lead role in fighting piracy. The president called for an international effort, but he offered no specifics on how to address the problem.
"We would like to implore President Obama to use all his resources to increase the commitment to ending this Somali pirate scourge," said Shane Murphy, 33, the ship's first mate. "It's time for us to step in and put an end to this crisis. This crew was lucky to be out of it with every one of us alive. We're not going to be that lucky again."
They had reason for concern. In Somalia, members of pirate groups appeared to agree on one thing the day after the U.S. military assault: They'd fight back.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"I've got a boat, I've got a machine gun and I have to go and search for French and American boats," said Mohammed Janaa, a 39-year-old self-described pirate, said by phone from the coastal Somali town of Hobyo, a notorious pirate den.
South of Hobyo, in the coastal town of Haradheere, Nor Osman, who described himself as a pirate commander in the area, said that leaders of local pirate groups had decided that, "If we happen to capture American or French hostages in the future, we will kill them immediately."
The threat didn't apply to the some 300 hostages aboard at least 17 ships that Kenyan experts think are being held by pirates, Osman said.
Whether this was bluster or a serious threat remains to be seen. Pirate groups, like everything else in Somalia, are divided along clan lines.
Interviews with pirate leaders from different clans and towns suggested that the U.S. assault and a French raid on a seized vessel last week — which left two pirates and one French hostage dead — could lead to more attacks in the Indian Ocean.
The mother of one of the pirates killed by Navy sharpshooters, whom she identified as 27-year-old Mowlid Hawe, said that her son "died while protecting the Somali sea," an argument often voiced by pirates, that they're protecting the coastline from illegal fishing.
"My son is a hero to Somalis, and history will judge Americans harshly," the mother, Jamila Abdelle, told McClatchy in an interview at her home in Golol, a village in central Somalia.
Navy officials said that while Phillips' rescue has put a national spotlight on the issue, piracy is a longstanding problem. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution calls on Congress to "define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas." In the run-up to the Barbary Wars in the early 19th Century, the U.S. negotiated with pirates, which led directly to the wars.
White House aides spoke Monday of an interagency group to continue looking at the issue of pirates and of a desire for international cooperation, but they declined to say how aggressively the administration is seeking to expand its policy, what military and non-military options it's considering and whether the president considers the problem a military or a legal one.
"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region," Obama said Monday. "And to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said there were "staff level discussions about policy," that the president wants "to work for sustained international cooperation in order to coordinate security" and that "we do have to evaluate and be prepared to take stronger action interdicting acts of piracy." Aides, however, declined requests for interviews Monday with staff members involved in those discussions.
Piracy is a crime, not an act of war, Navy officials said, and pirates have an infrastructure ashore that supports their operations, making it impossible to solve at sea. It's particularly difficult in Somalia, where large parts of the country are ungoverned, they said. Piracy is one of the troubled nation's most profitable business prospects.
On Sunday, snipers on the stern of the USS Bainbridge shot and killed three pirates who were holding Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, from about 30 yards away, and rescued Phillips. He was taken aboard a U.S. warship and is now en route back to the U.S. A fourth pirate who'd surrendered earlier was being detained and could face trial in the U.S.
That young men in small boats armed with AK-47 rifles regularly overtake large ships off the Somali coast, hold their crews hostage and pressure companies into paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom has prompted calls for a more active U.S. posture.
According to Vice Adm. William Gortney, the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, said that pirates have attacked at least 18 ships in the last three weeks.
"Piracy has become, for many of the people living in the coastal areas, a way to survive," said Ahmed Samatar, the dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "Their society has failed them, their state doesn't exist and the local (government) orders are ineffective."
Because merchant ships pay ransoms, "the business model is working," a senior defense official said. "At the same time, the pirates have gotten a lot more sophisticated. That's what makes it such a vexing problem."
Defense officials say it's a crime perpetuated over a vast area that even the 16 navies patrolling at the time of Phillips' capture couldn't stop; his ship was 300 miles offshore.
On Monday, Pentagon officials pushed for an international effort to thwart the problem, and they asked merchant ships to do more to protect their ships, but without pushing for them to arm themselves. They suggested that merchant vessels ensure that their ladders aren't down in the water and put barbed wire around exposed portions of the ship.
(Youssef reported from Washington. Bengali reported from Mombasa, Kenya, and special correspondents Ahmednor Mohamed and Ibrahim Elmi reported from Somalia. Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY