The fishing dhow Al Molai looks like hundreds of similar craft plying the waters of the Arabian Sea.
A BOARDING TEAM from the destroyer Kidd approaches the dhow Al Molai to free a group of Iranian sailors held hostage by pirates (U.S. Navy)
For about six weeks, the fishing boat moved around attracting little attention, its average appearance masking evil intentions.
The picture of innocence began to change Jan. 5.In reality, the vessel and its crew of Iranian sailors was being held hostage by pirates. The Al Molai became a mother ship for smaller boats apparently carrying Somalis bent on attacking merchant ships.
The end of the Al Molai's pirate career began when the Bahamas-registered cargo ship Sunrise issued a distress call around 8:30 a.m. A group of suspected pirates in a small, 15-foot open skiff was, according to the master of the Sunrise, attacking his ship.
The nearby U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis heard the radio call and dispatched the escorting cruiser Mobile Bay to move in. When an MH-60S helicopter from Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron 8, Detachment 1 operating from the cruiser approached, the six people aboard the skiff tossed a number of objects in the water.
"We suspected the objects to be RPGs [rocket-propelled grenade launchers] and rifles," Rear Adm. Craig Faller, commander of the John C. Stennis carrier strike group, told reporters during a conference call from his flagship on Jan. 6.
According to Faller, the suspected pirates surrendered to the helicopter. The cruiser moved in and sent over a boarding team, but no direct evidence was found to hold the Somalis. Despite being found about 175 miles at sea, southeast of Muscat, Oman, the skiff's sailors feigned innocence.
"They told us they were operating in the area for fun," Faller said. "We didn't think so."
Released, the suspected pirates set off on a course for an unknown destination. The helicopter followed at a distance. Soon, the small boat approached an Iranian-flagged dhow. The destroyer Kidd, patrolling in the region against pirates since mid-November, was vectored in, and its embarked MH-60R helicopter from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 71, Detachment 3, took over from the Mobile Bay's helo.
Asked by reporters on the conference call if it was clear it a pirate situation was at hand, Cmdr. Jennifer Ellinger, the destroyer's commanding officer, was confident.
"Yes, definitely," she said.
The helicopters "observed there were Middle Eastern as well as Somalis on board the craft," Ellinger said. "But when we talked bridge-to-bridge they indicated they were Iranian and there were no foreigners aboard, which we knew not to be true," she said.
The dhow's master spoke to the Americans over the radio in Urdu, a language widely spoken in Pakistan. The pirates were unable to follow along, but an Urdu-speaker aboard the Kidd had no trouble translating.
"When we talked to the master, it was clear he was under duress," Ellinger said. "He said they were physically abused, they were scared. They invited us to come over. We reassured them that we would be on the way."
According to Ellinger, the master told the pirates the Americans were coming on board and they knew they were there.
"He convinced them to surrender," she said.
The destroyer drew up to the dhow with guns manned and ready. "Basically it was a forceful approach," Ellinger said. "We asked them all to come topside and surrender their weapons."
The pirates put down their weapons but then tried to hide. When the American boarding team arrived, the master helpfully pointed out all the hiding places, and 15 suspected pirates were taken into custody without any shots being fired.
The 13 freed Iranian fishermen were ecstatic.
"We brought food and meals," Ellinger said. "They had no refrigerator, it was broken. They were relying on fishing to get food, although the pirates had some fruit and provisions."
The Iranian sailors "were extremely grateful," Ellinger said. "Their morale continued to increase as we removed the Somali pirates."
The pirates were transferred on Jan. 6 to the Stennis, where they were still being held on Jan. 7.
"The pirates are under our custody and evidence is being gathered," Faller said. "This will be referred to the interagency in the U.S. to determine what will occur."
The pirates would be treated appropriately, Faller told reporters. "As bad as they are, they deserve humane treatment like any person."
Provisioned with food and wearing Kidd ball caps, the Iranians sailed off to return to their home port.
UNAWARE OF CONTROVERSY
Faller said neither the Iranian fishermen nor the pirates seemed to have any awareness of the recent tensions between Iran and the U.S. over transits of the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
Shortly after the Stennis left the Gulf earlier this week, Iran's Army chief threatened the U.S. Navy and declared that the carrier would not be allowed back in. The threat was issued at the conclusion of a major 10-day Iranian naval exercise, and as new economic sanctions were slapped on Iran by the U.S. and other Western nations.
Despite the heated rhetoric from Tehran, the U.S. has sought to downplay the situation. Asked if the U.S. was exploiting the rescue of the Iranian sailors for publicity reasons, Faller was adamant.
"No sir. We didn't have a vision we'd be on a conference call tonight talking about it," he said during the conference call.
"The Navy is just doing its job out here. Conducting combat operations over Afghanistan and maintaining freedom of the sea."
No response to the rescue has been received from Iran, Faller said, although he acknowledged his forces have recently encountered Iranians.
"We have had interactions at sea with Iranian aircraft and surface ships," he said. "Those interactions have all been professional."
He did not provide further details.
Asked if the Stennis might go back through Hormuz, Faller gave the standard response.
"The Strait of Hormuz is an international strait, and by international law is subject to freedom of navigation," he said. "If it means moving back through the strait that's what we'll do. Right now it's business as usual as we focus on operations over Afghanistan."
"The U.S. Navy has been here for over 60 years," Faller added, "and we'll be here as long as we're needed. On call and ready."