First Norfolk Piracy Sentence in 150 Years

US Navy photo of the Ashland by Paul Farley. Public domain image of the Rack Rackham pirate flag from Wikipedia.

Today, November 29, marks the first sentencing for the crime of piracy in Norfolk, Virginia, in 150 years.

The incident occurred off the coast of Djibouti on April 10 of this year. The ship involved was the USS Ashland, a 610-foot, 11,000-ton Whidbey Island-class Dock Landing Ship of the United States Navy. She carries two Mark 38 25-millimeter autocannons, two 20-mm Gatling close-in-weapons-system (CIWS) Phalanx mounts to take down anti-ship missiles, a RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile System, and six fifty-caliber M2 Browning machine guns. It was part of the task force of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

The pirates were seven Somalis in a skiff, firing small arms.

How does a Somali pirate skiff find itself attacking a heavily-armed US warship? See…that’s the moral of the story. Bad intel.

In his plea, Somali Jama Idle Ibrahim, also known as Jaamac Ciidle, admitted to attacking the Ashland “which he believed was a merchant vessel that he intended to seize and hold for ransom,” according to an FBI post on the matter. The pirates spotted the Ashland and chased it; once alongside, they fired on the ship with assault rifles.

The Ashland responded by firing two rounds from its 25-millimeter autocannons, which I make kind of a big deal about because those weapons have a rate of fire of 225 rounds per minute. That means it took the Ashland one-half second to fire the rounds that set the pirate skiff on fire. Kinda gives me goosebumps. Six of the seven Somalis were retrieved by the Ashland‘s crew members in rigid-hulled inflatable boats; the seventh perished.

Piracy charges were later dropped on the grounds that the group had been unsuccessful in taking the Ashland, which means that while Ibrahim’s guilty plea is the first pirate-related case in 150 years, it’s not actually a conviction for piracy per se. This allowed Ibrahim to avoid the mandatory life sentence such a charge would bring. Today he received a sentence of thirty years. His five fellow pirates have not yet been sentenced.

There was a case of German piracy on US targets in World War I, but for some reason the prosecution isn’t counting that in figuring the 150 years — presumably because it was in time of war, on behalf of a recognized government. The case the prosecution is using, and therefore by de facto definition the last actual trial for piracy was the 1861 case of a Confederate privateer vessel Savannah which, similarly, tried to pirate a Union warship. The question in that case hinged on whether the combatants were pirates or privateer — a privateer, of course, being a pirate who is authorized to pirate by his or her government by the issuance of a Letter of Marque and Reprisal — a procedure authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. The Savannah had been authorized by the Confederate States of America to act as a privateer, but of course the Union did not acknowledge the legitimacy of that government. Tried in New York, the crew of the Savannah got a hung jury.

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