As Seen in “Captain Phillips”: 5 Facts About Modern Piracy

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.


Tanya Basu is a news apprentice at National Geographic. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Previously, she studied economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • emao

    Very interesting content. Would love to read more on such subject.

  • Zulusailor

    As a ship’s captain frequently trading in the Gulf of Aden Area, I can vouch for the authenticity of the marine and piracy scenes. In many respects they are terrifyingly lifelike. Of course, being filmed on a ship and not in a studio makes a massive difference to reality.

    With the tragic events in Nairobi and East Africa over the last few weeks, the movie has become especially topical and relevant. For more intuitive background to this sad part of the world and the life of pirates and those sailing in the area, check out Amazon Books, Kobo & iTunes/Books – ‘The Megiddo Revenge’.


  • Glen

    Two points;
    Some credit must be given to the increased use of Best Management Practices (BMP) by shipping companies to ‘harden’ the vessels, making it more difficult for pirates to board.

    Secondly, the international navies patrolling the region, including the greater use of patrol aircraft and drones, have conduct improved monitoring of the coastline of Somalia enabling the disruption of pirate skiffs in much quick timeframe. The fear is that as the level of piracy has reduced, shipping companies will reduce their security measures (some depending more on the embarked armed guards), and that governments may reduce the high costs of maintaining a naval presence in the region as they have less incidents to combat.

    One more thing. The warning about fishermen approaching the vessel in the movie does not come from the British coast guard. It is the UK Maritime Trade Office based in a Middle Eastern state.

  • Dimitris Maniatis

    I witnessed the shooting of the movie in Malta.
    I was there training on maritime security elements.
    Having worked on the water as an operative for the past years I can say that things have changed sine the Maersk Alabama incident.
    Private Maritime Security Contractors (PMSC) and the presence of international Naval Forces in the region, have made seafarers life less stressful and pirates professional life very difficult indeed.
    The success can be clearly seen in the recent numbers of piracy incidents from Somali based Pirate Action Groups (PAG).
    In the Gulf of Guinea where due to coastal state regulations regarding the use of PMSC’s we are not able to deploy and operate in the manner we were successful against Somali based PAG’s, the situation is becoming more and more hopeless.
    The movie “Capt.Phillips” is epic and gives the untrained eye a glimpse of the reality.
    I suggest to anyone interested on the matter to also see “A hijacking” Its a Danish film that is based on a true story as well,the hijacking of the MV Rozen.

  • Capt Fola

    Very interesting and worrisome indeed.
    As a ship master who had also been chased twice by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean in 2010, i can tell you that the situation is of a serious concern to mariners. However, the shift of piracy from the East coast to the West coast of Africa with its advancing sophistication is another global challenge. Notably, it has been reported that a successful breaking of citadel by west African pirates believed to be of Nigerian origin has been recorded. This is a new dimension of confrontational threat to maritime security and safety of life at sea.

  • Scotttinkc

    Could some one please share with us WHY these ships do not carry a selection of 8# and 12 # cannon balls and drop them over the side of the ship when these “pirates pull there boat up to board a large ship? Or when a pirate pokes his head up over the side of the ship why are they not shot on sight? If the job pays well, I own a Remington 12 gauge shot gun with 1 OZ slugs which would be most effective. I would appreciate hearing from some one who can answer these questions honestly.

  • Dee

    This is such a valid topic!

    Being in the shipping industry myself, this is a very worrying topic as you not only worry about cargo, but first and foremost the safety of your crew. http://www.triplesshipping.co.za/

    I would also be inclined towards a more congratulatory stance toward Captain Phillips for his very brave and selfless move. Even if there was criticism or blame in the Captain’s decision to venture close to pirate waters, did he not completely redeem himself in his sacrifice which saved his ship and crew?

    To my mind, what a hero!

    Thank you for your article, it is good to spread awareness of the modern day pirates. Not nearly as romantic a theme as Hollywood would spin it out to be.

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