Bahrain – The USS Kidd (DDG 100) Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team boarded Iranian fishing dhow Al Molai to rescue 13 hostages from pirates at approximately 12:30 p.m. local time in the northern Arabian Sea, Jan. 5.
USS Kidd Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Jennifer L. Ellinger, a 1993 Naval Academy graduate from Palm Harbor, Fla., recounts the rescue operation.
“When Mobile Bay, Stennis and their aircraft responded,” said Ellinger, “it was in response to a distress signal from Motor Vessel Sunshine. A Bahamanian flag vessel that was being attacked by one of the pirate skiffs from the mother ship Al Molai. When the helicopter arrived on station, the pirates were fleeing, and they threw their weapons overboard. We took the opportunity, the Strike Group and CTF-151, to monitor where the pirate skiff went after the Mobile Bay VBSS Team let them go. They couldn’t hold them because they had no paraphernalia on them. It was an opportunity, unbeknownst to the pirates, for us to follow them by maintaining aerial surveillance. So, Mobile Bay and their helicopter maintained surveillance until my helicopter could arrive on station and feed back video, so we could make some decisions and ascertain what was going on.”
The situation was uncovered through conversations between Kidd engineer, Chief Petty Officer Gas Turbine Systems Technician - Electrical Jagdeep Sidhu, and an Iranian aboard the vessel. “When we interdicted them and began our queries, knowing that the pirates were on board because that’s where they went, we utilized Chief Petty Officer Sidhu to talk to them. It was during the conversations in Urdu, which is the language spoken in Pakistan, India, and certain regions of Iran, the (boat’s) master was free to discuss with us what was going on, because the Somali pirates could not understand what he was saying,” said Ellinger.
“It was through Chief Petty Officer Sidhu’s discussion in Urdu with the master, that he conveyed he needed help,” said Ellinger. “He needed assistance, and we continued to reassure him that we were coming. We found out later there was a pirate standing there asking him, ‘what did you say?’ Chief Sidhu asked, ‘Do you deny there are foreigners on board, and that there are pirates?’ We knew there were pirates on board, so the fact that he wasn’t admitting there were Somalis on board was also a key. He wasn’t answering truthfully. Then he started telling us they were abusing them and that they had RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) on board that they’d thrown over, and that they were armed, so we would know what we were dealing with.”
Monitoring the situation from helicopter via video, along with information gathered by Sidhu, provided the team with the information they needed. “Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM)-71, Det 3, our helicopter squadron on board, provided us clear feedback from the ship,” said Ellinger. “We were able to observe both Middle Eastern men and Somalis topside. We saw that between the Middle Eastern gentlemen, presumed to be Iranian because it was observed to be an Iranian flag vessel, and the Somalis, that they weren’t interacting very much. That’s normally an indication that this was not a cooperative relationship between these men. We suspected that this was indeed a mother ship because the pirates went there, and they were utilizing it to attack merchants in the area of the Northern Arabian Sea.”
Once it was assessed that hostages were being held aboard Al Molai, Ellinger and her crew began a plan to board the vessel. “As we closed the vessel, I manned SCAT (Small Craft Attack Team),” said Ellinger. “My boarding teams had been briefed four hours prior to launch, and then again two hours, and then just prior to being on station, based on the information we were gathering from Mobile Bay, as well as the Stennis and our helicopters that were aloft.”
“Chief Sidhu, in addition to his ability to speak multiple languages, is also an engineer. He went down and assessed the engineering plant. We provided 50 gallons of fuel to them in the morning before they departed. He was able to talk to the master about what other piracy missions they were pulled into by simply being on the dhow, and they gave us intelligence on how these pirates were executing missions. They told us they came over from another ship where these pirates killed two people. It was another Iranian vessel. So, this was not the first Iranian vessel commandeered by these pirates. The intelligence we gathered about other operations completely fell into what had been observed or not observed in the region.”
“I had to request permission to continue through the night,” said Ellinger. “Normally, during compliant boarding, they make your team disembark at night, but since this was not a situation where we could let the Somalis and Iranians stay on board together, we had to isolate each group. We needed to tend to the care of both the Iranians and Somalis, so we sent over blankets and food.”
Once the Iranians were free from captivity, they were very thankful for the Kidd’s intervention according to Sidhu, a member of the ship’s crew since 2008. “When we went there and took care of these people, they were extremely thankful,” said Sidhu. “I don’t have the words to express how relieved and happy they were. In their local language they said, ‘Long live America. You are the means of God’s will to help us. My crew has been praying for two days.’”
A member of the Iranian crew relayed the story that a French vessel came within 60 yards and spoke Arabic and English through their translator, but the Somalis could speak both of those languages, said Sidhu. The Iranian crewmember said, “When you’re at gunpoint, you answer their questions just the way the Somalis wanted them to be answered, so the French ship left.”
Sidhu felt actions taken by his ship were critical in the Iranian’s survival. “When we came, he was able to convey to us that he was in distress, and we were able to help these people out,” said Sidhu. “We saved their lives. Thirteen crew members, and they had been at sea for 45 days. Their families didn’t know if they were alive or dead, only that they’d been captured.”
Ellinger feels strongly that taking advantage of the talent, and skill of a ship’s crew is one of the keys to a successful mission. “Like every ship that deploys, we are aware of the language skills of all of our crewmembers. It’s part of the Subject Matter Expert (SME). Chief Sidhu is not only instrumental in this pirate event, but also when we were doing a CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) exercise in 7th Fleet with Bangladesh. We were the flagship for that event. Chief Sidhu is actually my EOOW (Engineering Officer of the Watch). I pulled him up to the bridge and said, ‘I need you to talk to these folks.’ He’s multi-faceted, talented and represents one of our many crew members whose cultural heritage and background is a force multiplier in any of these missions that we carry out.”
Conditions aboard Al Molai were deteriorating, and the pirates were searching for a new vessel to take over. “They were living in horrendous conditions,” said Ellinger. “There were rat infestations, cockroaches, and they were basically fishing for their food. They had no refrigeration on board, and were out of gas.”
“They were trying to intercept another vessel at the time they were intercepted by the Mobile Bay and the John C. Stennis Strike Group. Obviously, they were thwarted, so they were just waiting for another opportunity. We sent security teams over, and people we had trained as detainee handlers, VBSS teams, and our Force Protection teams. All of them understood we were to respect, not just the Iranians, but also the Somalis, and to treat them all with human dignity, and let them sleep through the night. We brought them water, food, and blankets continuously,” said Ellinger.
“For security, we didn’t want to transport the Somalis over to the Kidd until we made sure everything was in order, and that we got all the information we possibly could from both the Iranians and the Somalis. We were gathering evidence. In the morning, we transported each of the Somalis back to the Kidd and went through the standard detainee handling process. While this was going on, I was coordinating with the John C. Stennis for them to fly their helicopters to take all the Somalis back over to the Stennis and put them in their brig. Although we have the capability to hold detainees on board, they have a lot more people trained over there to do that, and to continue to interview them and get more information about the piracy activity,” said Ellinger.
The counter-piracy mission is all about ensuring safety on the seas according to Ellinger. “Our goal was safety and security, protecting the lives of those fishermen, providing them food, water and gas, insuring that their ship was sea worthy, and to allow them to be free and go on their way. They’d already been held hostage for 40 to 45 days. We just wanted to make sure they made it home to their families.
Ellinger touts training as a major factor in the success of the mission.
“Afloat Training Group and the requirements they have for VBSS is excellent. Ships have the challenge of not only qualifying folks that are physically fit, but also those capable of executing these duties. During our transit across the Pacific, we continued to do boardings on each other, escort operations, and other training internally, especially once we knew we were going to be the flagship for counter-piracy and that was going to be the majority of our focus for our mission.”
The crew of the Kidd has not let the recent attention in the press go to their heads. “The crew is very humbled by this because, honestly, we were just doing our job. I understand there is a political backdrop to all this, but we were just happy to save lives and help people. They were Iranians, but it didn’t matter. We do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. There are ships out here that are executing the same mission, U.S. and coalition, and they are doing it without recognition.”
Ellinger points out that U.S. and coalition navies are not the only mariners trying to stem the tide of piracy. “While we provide presence with a purpose,” said Ellinger, “both U.S. and coalition assets in the area, we can’t be everywhere all the time. Mariners are taking it upon themselves to embark security teams and are using recommended techniques to deter pirates. I would like people to know that this mission is being done 24/7, 365 days a year. We are not only keeping sea lanes and communication open, but we’re protecting people on the high seas. Regardless of where people are, we will answer the call for safety of life at sea.”
Diversity is a major component in conducting successful missions according to Ellinger, “I think what we have recognized in this experience and other engagements is we have a talented group of Sailors and other military members, who are often untapped talent. In this case, it all came down to words – words that prompted actions. Had it been English, or any other language, I know the Iranian wouldn’t have asked for help because his life was in danger, but the opportunity presented itself. I think an investment in language skills and tapping into this talent will help us in our engagements with foreign countries,” said Ellinger. “There’s a personable aspect when you have people from different cultures interacting, and we take advantage of that opportunity because it gives pride to the Sailor and for their culture and heritage, but it also helps to be a force multiplier and helps in executing our mission.”
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