WASHINGTON – The Justice Department was considering whether to bring a detained Somali pirate to the U.S., Kenya or Somalia to face charges after the harrowing rescue of a cargo ship's U.S. captain.
The FBI was preparing a case Monday, one of three possible options in what to do with the captured pirate. Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life sentences under U.S. law.
He could also be handed over to Kenyan authorities, where other pirates have been convicted in the past, or sent back to Somalia.
Somali media were identifying the pirate as 16-year-old Mohamed Abdi, according to the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn. But a Justice Department official told FOX News that authorities have been unable to nail down exactly how old the pirate is as other reports indicated he is as young as 14.
The other three pirates were killed Sunday in a military operation that rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage aboard a lifeboat for days.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case, said the Justice Department is considering whether to leave the case in the hands of federal prosecutors in Washington or New York.
"He's in military custody right now," FBI spokesman John Miller said. "That will change as this becomes more of a criminal issue than a military issue."
Navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said the disposition of the captured pirate had yet to be determined.
"We have multiple avenues," Gortney said at a Pentagon news conference conducted by telephone. "We could possibly bring him back here to the United States and try him since this was an American flag vessel."
He said prosecutors were also considering taking the pirate to Kenya, where the military has an agreement under which captured pirates will be tried. But that agreement has never been used following an attack on a U.S. ship.
Washington federal courts normally handle cases involving crimes committed against U.S. citizens abroad. But the FBI office in New York takes the lead when crimes are committed against U.S. citizens in Africa.
Both Miller and Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said no decisions have been made regarding charges against the surviving pirate.
"The Justice Department will be reviewing the evidence and other issues to determine whether to seek prosecution in the United States," Boyd said.
Attorney General Eric Holder will have the final say about where the pirate will be charged. Holder said last week that the U.S. hasn't seen a case of piracy against an American ship in hundreds of years.
U.S. prosecutors do have jurisdiction to bring charges when a crime is committed against a U.S. citizen or on a U.S. ship.
Phillips was taken hostage after his cargo ship was attacked by pirates. The crew thwarted the hijacking but the pirates fled with Phillips into a lifeboat.
Officials said the pirate surrendered to U.S. forces. Details of the surrender were not immediately clear but, under international law, the Navy has the right to hold pirates captured at sea and does not need to negotiate extradition with another country.
The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.
The U.S. is treating the matter as a criminal case because officials have found no direct ties between East African pirates and terror groups. Because the U.S. is not at war with Somalia, piracy cases are governed by U.S. and international law.
The FBI investigates crimes committed on the high seas but piracy cases are unusual. Assaults on cruise ships are the most common offenses investigated at sea.
"If there were ever a U.S. victim of one of these attacks or a U.S. shipping line that were a victim, our Justice Department has said that it would favorably consider prosecuting such apprehended pirates," Stephen Mull, the acting undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, told Congress last month.
FOX News' Mike Levine, Greg Palkot and The Associated Press contributed to this report.