PEARLS OF THE DEEP
‘Smiling’ Somali Pirate Says Jailers Have Ruined His Grin
The lead hijacker of the MV Maersk Alabama—famous for his huge grin after his arrest—is suing his dentists from prison.
The lead hijacker of the MV Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia nearly 10 years ago has lost nearly half of the teeth in his mouth, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit he filed from prison.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, who was portrayed by Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi in the 2013 blockbuster film Captain Phillips, is a little over seven years into a sentence of 33 years and nine months at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, for his part in the crime.
The suit was filed quietly last year by Muse, who became known as the “Smiling Pirate” for the wide grin he wore during his first perp walk in America. He’s seeking $1.15 million in damages from a prison dentist and two other medical personnel, plus their firing. He claims the prison staffers’ “deliberate indifference” to his dental needs has resulted in the loss of at least 15 of his 32 teeth. He says he can no longer “properly chew, eat, or consume vital nutrients,” and describes the pain as “unbearable.”
Muse is the sole surviving hijacker from the taking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009. The hijacking “was a pretty classic piece of piracy,” said retired British Army Colonel John Steed, who headed the UN’s counter-piracy operations in Somalia at one time and now oversees operations in the Horn of Africa for Oceans Beyond Piracy, a U.S.-based NGO. “Two skiffs coming alongside a ship, putting up a ladder, getting onboard, threatening the crew, getting them to phone their company, et cetera. The difference with the Alabama case is how it was resolved—it was one of the most audacious sea hostage rescues we’ve ever seen.”
In the course of researching an article on maritime piracy, Muse and I corresponded by mail for a brief period at the end of 2013, and he mentioned his dental woes in a letter he sent to me from FCI Terre Haute. In his first letter, he told me to call him “Musa,” since that’s what everyone else did.
The handwriting is his, as it matches court documents that he personally filled out and signed. It is a near-certainty that a native English speaker coached him very heavily for the letters.
I asked him about the Alabama hijacking, but Muse insisted he couldn’t say much about it since he had appeals pending. (He has since lost those appeals.) He said his plan had been to work as a fisherman in what he described as a “small village on the ocean,” a place identified in a sentencing memorandum as Garacad, “one of a number of piracy centers” in the semi-autonomous province of Puntland.
Muse said he had never seen Captain Phillips, the movie. He said he would probably watch if it was ever shown on the prison TV system.
He also asked if I would send him a copy of Capt. Richard Phillips’ memoir of the hijacking, A Captain’s Duty, which he said he hadn’t read, either.
Somewhat reluctantly, I sent Muse “the ‘Captain Phillips’ book,” as he called it, via Amazon, as he instructed; federal prisons require that books sent to inmates come directly from the publisher or distributor so nothing can be smuggled inside of it.
I was automatically notified by Amazon when Muse got the book. I waited eagerly for his response, regularly checking the P.O. Box I had rented to facilitate our correspondence. I wrote to him a few more times, asking what he thought about the story, which parts he considered most accurate, and so forth.
I kept the P.O. Box months longer than I probably should have, finally canceling it only when it became obvious I would never heard from Muse again.
But if Muse was curious about what Richard Phillips had to say about the hijacking in his book, I wondered how Phillips—and other crewmembers that were there—would react to Muse’s take on things in his letters to me.
So I asked them.
For starters, Muse’s teeth “were terrible to begin with,” Capt. Richard Phillips told me. Nor did he ever once smile during the hijacking, Phillips said.
Phillips said Muse, who claimed not to speak any English when he arrived in America, likely understood more than he let on in court.
“His English was better than half my crew,” said Phillips. “He may not have all the words, but he has all the curses. That’s one thing [the hijackers] all said, they wanted to come to the U.S. And he got his wish.”
Muse is housed in FCI Terre Haute’s Communications Management Unit, or CMU, a highly restrictive wing reserved for some of America’s most notorious criminals and terrorists, including “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. The CMU is colloquially known as “Guantanamo North,” which Muse noted in his first letter, and contains 55 cells, of which five are used for disciplinary segregation. CMU inmates aren’t allowed contact visits, and everything they say to family or friends must be in English.
All letters to and from inmates in the CMU are read by prison officials, all telephone calls are recorded, and audio surveillance picks up all inmate conversation, which is then analyzed by an offsite counterterrorism unit.
Muse makes $19 a month working as a prison orderly, though he sees considerably less than that on payday. The judge in his case ordered his wages garnished to pay the $550,000 in restitution he owes for the hijacking, plus a court fee of $600 due upon conviction.
A planned documentary by Lesotho-Canadian documentarian Kaizer Matsumunyane about Muse stalled in 2013. Matsumunyane continued to post very occasional updates about Muse on Facebook until they ended abruptly 16 months ago. According to the postings, Muse got his GED in 2016 after struggling with the English portion. He also spent at least one 30-day stretch in solitary for being “a bit disruptive” and lost his phone privileges for a month.
Phillips said Muse is still better off in the U.S., even in prison, than he was before.
“He didn’t have a chance to sue anybody in Somalia,” he laughed.
There were about 45 inmates in the CMU when Muse and I first corresponded. Roughly 25 of them were Muslim, said Muse, who described himself as devoutly Islamic. Without many activities with which to occupy himself, Muse said he spent free time reading, writing, watching television, and talking to “my brothers. We do get along well, the place is quiet and peaceful.”
However, Phillips claimed Muse was actually a Christian convert to Islam, something he was told during the four days Muse and his compatriots held him hostage on one of the Alabama’s lifeboats.
His time on that boat “was a lot worse than what you saw in the movie,” Phillips told me. “What they did to me was a lot worse than that. They made it very clear to me, had anything come into that lifeboat, a bullet, a person, whatever, the first person who died would be me. They had guns to my head many times.”
Muse never broke character, perpetually “coughing, spitting, cussing, belittling me,” Phillips said. Still, he has a grudging respect of sorts for Muse, calling him “a good leader.”
“He snapped his three guys up and they followed him explicitly,” Phillips recalled.
At one point, Phillips suddenly leapt from the lifeboat and began swimming toward the USS Bainbridge, which was on the scene trying to negotiate an end to the standoff.
“The escape bid was witnessed by the U.S. Navy but happened too quickly for them to come to his aid,” The Guardian reported at the time. “It was not clear if the pirates had aimed at Phillips, but he is believed to be unharmed. News of Phillips’ daring escape attempt came after the pirates vowed to fight if they are attacked. There were also unconfirmed reports that the hijackers had called in reinforcements.”
But Phillips told me he actually wasn’t trying to escape.
“It was just so hot” inside the unventilated, covered lifeboat that he simply “wanted to jump in the water.” Phillips’ captors fired shots at him, and he quickly swam back to the boat.
Five days later, the lifeboat ran out of gas.
As it sat motionless, a Navy launch pulled up to deliver food and water to Phillips and the four hijackers. At this point, Muse stepped aboard and asked to make a phone call. He had also suffered a cut on his hand when the Alabama’s crew rose up against him days earlier, and Muse wanted medical treatment. He was then taken aboard the Bainbridge, which now had the lifeboat under tow.
When spotters aboard the Bainbridge saw one of the pirates holding an AK-47 to Phillips’ back and determined his life was in imminent danger, snipers on the ship’s fantail took out all three pirates with single shots to the head.
Phillips was unharmed.
“I thought I was caught in the crossfire between the three pirates,” he said. “I could see them breaking down with Muse not being there, and that’s one of the things that caused the end to come. I think he knew something was going down, we were getting closer to the coast. But also, I’ll say he was weak—he quit.”
In one of his letters, Muse complained of depression and said he was suffering from PTSD—court papers filed by his defense team allege this was at least partly brought on by seeing his cohorts shot in the head with .30-caliber slugs. He said he was held in solitary confinement, with no outside communication except for visits from his court-appointed lawyer, for the first year of his incarceration. In court papers, the government argued this was necessary because Muse allegedly called a pirate crew in Somalia from a prison phone during his pre-trial detention at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, and ordered the captain of another hijacked vessel, the Win Far 161, to be assassinated. Muse’s lawyers argued the government made a translation error.
Phillips holds no grudge against Muse, saying he had no opportunities in Somalia and ultimately made bad decisions that led him to where he is today.
“Somalia is a lawless country,” said Phillips. “Muse was working for the warlords up north. The only thing that’s going to get rid of piracy, which starts on land and then reaches out to sea, is to do something about that lawlessness.”
While he was interested to hear about Muse’s life now, Phillips doesn’t feel a particular need to know much more.
“We got our points across very clear in that lifeboat,” he said. “I have no ill will toward the guy, but I have no desire to meet him or talk to him again.”
But Captain Phillips’ second-in-command on the Alabama, First Mate Shane Murphy, said he’d actually be kind of interested in sitting down with Muse for a one-on-one.
“We were both captains of that ship at one point,” Murphy told me. “I went to school, that’s what got me to that spot in the ocean. He took a different route to get there. Now, it’s ended differently—I’m where I am and he’s where he is. He’s living with the consequences now.”
Murphy, who vividly remembers having his hands around Muse’s neck at one point during the hijacking, is now the captain of his own ship, the MV Energy Enterprise. His routes no longer take him to Africa; he now prefers U.S. waters.
While Murphy continues his life as a mariner, another crewman that was on the Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked decided to pack it in shortly afterward.
“I [later] went back on a ship and after a month I had enough, so I got off and I retired,” said the former crewman, who asked for anonymity.
It’s clear that he has mixed feelings about Muse and the other three pirates, expressing dismay that Muse was even given his day in court.
“But, who am I to say?” he continued. “I was made to understand that these people were fishermen and when these warlords came into it, they were threatened if they don’t go out and do the pirate thing, their families would be killed.”
In his letters (and confirmed in court documents), Muse said he was driven to piracy because he had no other choice.
“Throughout [his] early years, Abduwali [Muse] experienced a state of deprivation that is almost inconceivable in the United States,” his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “As a young child, Abduwali survived primarily on camel’s milk, although sometimes he had fruit or nuts. About once a month, he might be given a cooked meal. He vividly remembers the agonizing hunger that he experienced as a young boy. Abduwali’s life was difficult in other ways... When his father was particularly upset, he would tie Abduwali to a tree and tell him that a lion would come to eat him.”
The prosecution acknowledged Muse’s difficult childhood, but explained to the court that the Alabama hijacking was not his first one.
“During a five-week period in the spring of 2009, Muse, a Somali citizen, led a gang of pirates on a series of violent attacks against three different ships that were navigating in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia,” the government said in their argument for the maximum sentence of 405 months, which he ultimately received.
“By all accounts Muse did not just commit the acts to which he pled guilty; he reveled in them. From boasting about the millions he had made from prior hijackings to laughing after pulling the trigger of his pistol next to a hostage’s head to suggesting that he would cut up a hostage and sell his organs, Muse derived joy from the suffering of his victims. He abused them physically and psychologically in an effort to subdue and control them.”
“Fifty-three sailors spread across six countries along with their families have been profoundly affected by Muse’s choices and actions,” the filing said.
One of them, Maersk Alabama Third Engineer John Cronan, was unable to go back to work after the hijacking and ultimately lost his home to foreclosure. His wife experienced panic attacks anytime he left the house and she couldn’t reach him. His daughter suffered from nightmares and said she was afraid that Muse would escape from prison and harm her.
Four years after the hijacking, Alabama chief engineer Mike Perry, who had ambushed Muse early on and managed to stab him in the hand in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the situation around, sent an email to the rest of the crew:
“To all of the Alabama Shipmates, On this anniversary of the Navy freeing Richard [Phillips], I have just received a phone call from Special Agent Steve Sorrells of the FBI. Steve is the agent that came to Mombasa to perform the investigation and collect our statements. Two years ago, he went out of his way to personally return to me the knife that I used to take down Abduwali [Muse] with. They came right to my house to present it to me. Anyway, he called because he wanted us all to know that we have not been forgotten. They remember what we went through and what we did. He is a nice guy, and truly has reached out in respect to all of you. We all did good, we all came home. A job well done. Thank you.”
Retired Rear Admiral Terry McKnight was the commander of anti-piracy naval forces off Somalia when the Alabama was hijacked. He calls the pirates he has interacted with “desperate, desperate people.”
“When we capture pirates on the ships, that’s the first time in their life some of them have seen toilet paper, or three meals a day, or dental care,” McKnight told me. He said the fishermen who get into piracy are generally coastal fishermen who work the shorelines, and are “terrified” of going to sea. Many of them don’t even know how to swim.
The point isn’t to kill anyone, said McKnight. Hijacking operations are in fact “investments” overseen by local warlords, who take the bulk of any ransoms collected for themselves. Someone like Muse might get a few hundred bucks for hijacking a vessel like the Alabama. For someone who regularly struggled to feed himself, as Muse said he did, that’s a big incentive.
Unfortunately, the conditions on the ground that created this problem in the first place “haven’t changed one little bit,” said Steed, the former UN counter-piracy head.
Yet, pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa have gone down drastically since Muse and his crew seized the Alabama.
The drop is due in part to better ship tracking, and transiting risky areas at higher speeds, but more than anything else, it’s the now-standard presence of armed guards on vessels, according to Steed. Since the Alabama incident, “it’s only ships without armed security on board that have been taken.”
Accordingly, piracy is no longer a profitable business, and Steed said the number of active pirates in Somalia has dwindled to mere double-digits. He estimates only four pirate groups remain, with eight to 10 members each.
The only one that has made it to America now sits in an midwestern penitentiary. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction in 2016, arguing that he was only 16 at the time of his arrest and shouldn’t have been tried as an adult, something he also mentioned in his letters to me. U.S. investigators testified Muse told them he was between 18 and 19.
“Pretty interesting [that] he thinks he was unjustly punished,” said Shane Murphy. “Shooting at us?”
Although I haven’t heard from him in five years, Abduwali Muse surely has more to say.
As he signed off his last letter to me, “P.S. I’m writing my own book, so someday you may see that!”