NEW YORK — A Somali suspect, who became the boyish face of 21st century piracy by staging a brazen high-seas attack on a US-flagged ship off the coast of Africa, pleaded guilty yesterday to charges that he hijacked the ship and kidnapped its captain.
Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse has been jailed in Manhattan since he was captured last year and faced what was called the first US piracy prosecution in decades.
“I am very, very sorry about what we did,’’ he said through an interpreter. “All of this was about the problems in Somalia.’’
He also pleaded guilty to hostage-taking and conspiracy. He faces a minimum of 27 years in prison. Sentencing was set for Oct. 19.
Prosecutors branded Muse the ringleader of a band of four pirates who provoked a deadly drama by targeting the Maersk Alabama on April 8, 2009, as it transported humanitarian supplies about 280 miles off the coast of Somalia.
The case could be the first of several piracy prosecutions in US courts. It is part of a larger US policy debate over how best to deal with the insurgents and how to treat criminal activities that contribute to the instability in Somalia, making it a haven for Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
In the Maersk Alabama case, a criminal complaint said Muse was the first to board the ship, firing his AK-47 assault rifle at the captain, Richard Phillips. He entered the bridge, told the captain to stop the ship, and “conducted himself as the leader of the pirates,’’ the complaint said.
Muse’s age has been in dispute since the start of the case. When he was arraigned, his lawyers insisted he was 15 and should be tried as a juvenile. Prosecutors convinced a judge he was at least 18.