An American hostage held by armed Somali pirates in a tiny lifeboat may be protected by a lucrative — and possibly growing — ransom on his life, experts said Friday.
But they also warned that the uniqueness of the high-stakes standoff could quickly change things.
The possible payout for Capt. Richard Phillips would be the pirates' top priority and could trump any desire for payback after his recent escape attempt, experts said. The 53-year-old Phillips jumped out of the boat Friday before being forced back in by automatic weapons fire.
The pirates are businessmen, not suicidal jihadists, said Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical analysis for Stratfor, a global intelligence company based in Austin, Texas.
"These are people who are trying to make money," Stewart said. "They want to survive this. They don't want to die, which is a good thing in the captain's favor."
Ransom price may be driven up
Jamie Lynn DeCoster, a surface warfare Navy officer who has been on piracy patrols off the coast of Africa, said the international publicity and looming U.S. warships have ratcheted up the pressure on the pirates, but could also drive up the ransom price.
Ultimately, the four pirates know they're responsible to superiors on land, who won't be as influenced by the warship guns pointed at their subordinates and may be eyeing a bigger payout than normal for a healthy Phillips, she said.
"If (the pirates) still need him, if they don't feel severely threatened, and they're still acting and making decisions in a rational matter, I believe that Capt. Phillips might be safer," said DeCoster, a student at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. "But we don't know. We don't know what they're thinking right now."
The volatile situation, including word of the escape attempt, has worn on Phillips' family in Underhill, Vt., said his brother-in-law, Tom Coggio.
"Now, this is just really taking a toll on all of us," said Coggio, speaking from his home in Richmond, Vt.
Coggio said when Phillips dove into the water, "maybe he saw a window of opportunity to get out of that lifeboat, which is basically a friggin' eggshell they're sitting in. Let's just hope that doesn't escalate things."
The lifeboats are robust
It's uncertain exactly what kind of lifeboat the pirates are in. Merchant Marine Rear Adm. Rick Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, said the lifeboats cargo ships typically carry are covered, up to 28 feet long, and hold about two dozen people.
A lifeboat at the academy, which was built to similar specifications, had seats around the boat's inside edges and on a center console, which holds food and the engine. The fiberglass lifeboats are robust, Gurnon said, and built to turn back over if they capsize at sea. He added they "bob like a cork" and are extremely uncomfortable to ride in for any length of time.
Gurnon said he believes time is on the side of the U.S. Navy because exhaustion will set in as the pirates spend hours adrift in a cramped, hot lifeboat. The Navy will keep other pirate vessels away, depriving the Somalis of an escape route.
"I think the four pirates are frightened," Gurnon said. "I mean, they're looking down the barrels of some pretty angry American weapons. They've got one American hostage — they thought they had a good deal. Didn't turn out that way. They made a bad bargain, and they have no more cards to play."
Their only hope is keeping Phillips alive and turning him in, Gurnon said. "They have every motive to keep him alive and well. He's not worth anything dead."