A Somali teenager accused of leading a pirate attack on an American cargo ship off the coast of Africa has made a brief appearance before a New York judge.

Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse was told at a three-minute Thursday hearing to return Jan. 12.

Muse smiled as he left court. He has pleaded not guilty to piracy charges.

Authorities say Muse was the only surviving pirate of a group that attacked the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast in April. The ship carried humanitarian supplies.

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Muse, charged with piracy and hostage-taking, could face life in prison if convicted.

The government says Muse is 18. His family says he is as young as 15.

U.S. prosecutors have branded Muse the ringleader of a band of four pirates who provoked the deadly drama, while defense attorneys have insisted he's a bewildered teenager snatched from obscurity. He wept last month when his lawyers failed to convince a judge he was only 15 and should be tried as a juvenile.

Muse grew up destitute in Somalia, the oldest of 12 children and the product of a violent, lawless nation where piracy has flourished. On April 8, he teamed up with other young bandits who targeted the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, which is managed by Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line Ltd., as it transported humanitarian supplies about 280 miles off the Somali coast.

An FBI criminal complaint said Muse was the first to board the boat, 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," according to the complaint.

The pirates held Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., hostage for several days on a sweltering, enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter.

The standoff ended when Navy snipers got the go-ahead to shoot three pirates after one held an AK-47 close to Phillips' back.