When Somali pirates seized a 58-foot yacht with its crew of four Americans, security experts got ready for the sort of marathon hostage negotiations that often happen these days in Somalia. More than a year might pass, and millions of dollars may be paid, but the captives usually emerge unscathed.
The Americans had been on a years-long voyage around the world, stopping at exotic ports and distributing bibles. But off the coast of Oman last Friday, they sent out an SOS: 19 pirates had boarded the yacht and seized them. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the turbulent region, went into action. "The intent always had been that this would be a negotiated process and not ever go into a point where we actually had gunfire," said Vice Admiral Mark Fox, the fleet's commander.
Then came a startling, shocking turn of events. According to Fox, who commands the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, two pirates had gone to negotiate on board the U.S.S. Sterett, the ship trailing the yacht. Then, early Tuesday morning, the pirates aboard the Quest fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the U.S. warship. That was followed, Fox said, by the sound of gunfire. A party of Navy SEALS then raided the yacht, where they killed two pirates and found two more of them had been killed earlier. But the hostages Scott and Jean Adam, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay had all been fatally shot.
The pirates dispute the details. While Fox said that the pirates started the shooting, one pirate reached by phone in northern Somalia told TIME the violence started when American forces launched a rescue attempt. "When Americans tried to rescue the hostages and arrest our friends, our friends decided to fight until death," Ali Jama told TIME. "The U.S. navy forces started the shootings. They are to be blamed for what happened. They are making us nervous. They want to rescue and arrest our mates without any damage to themselves."
Analysts, pirates and security experts in the region all agree that killings come at a time when Somalia's pirates, who once saw their captives as highly valuable bargaining chips to get multi-million-dollar ransoms, have become more and more violent toward them. They say that's partly the result of a more aggressive stance by the international naval force patrolling the waters off Somalia's coast. The Americans in particular had gained the Somalis ire for an incident in April, 2009, when American snipers shot and killed three pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been taken from his ship, the Maersk Alabama, onto a life boat. After that, pirates in Somalia told TIME that they would seek their revenge. "We're warning the owners of other ships that if they try to attack, we will kill the crews and burn their ships," a pirate named Hassan Yare told TIME after Phillips was freed.
But there were also strong signs that pirates had begun to panic when their hijacking of the American ship went wrong. Andrew Mwangura, maritime editor for Somalia Report, a news website, says his contacts have told him that the approaching U.S. naval vessels, responding to the SOS, separated the initial pirate raiding party from its mother ship, one of the faster, larger vessels that the pirates use to prowl the high seas. Normally, the pirates would ditch the slow-moving yacht and transfer the hostages to their own ship, which would have ample supplies and a fast engine, and make for the relative safety of the Somali coast. But this time, it looked like the entire raiding crew 19 pirates got stuck aboard the yacht. With so many people aboard, they likely would not have had enough food or water to make it back to shore.
"There was no proper rationing, no proper supply of fuel," says Mwangura. "I think the naval forces did something bad by coming closer, and those on the mother ship were scared so they left the yacht with a big number of gunmen on board, and the yacht was not moving fast." Mwangura explains: "Now you have a lot of killing and torturing of seafarers whenever naval ships come closer or patrol pass overhead. Many seamen, when they get released, tell us the same story. When the pirates see ships getting closer, they put the crew at gunpoint and use them as human shields."
The Quest tragedy comes at a time when naval forces have launched more and more attacks against pirates and the hijackers have become more edgy. "In the last eight to ten months, everyone in the industry has noted an increased propensity toward violence against hostages from the pirates themselves," says one Nairobi-based security expert who is frequently involved in hostage negotiations. The siege mentality among pirates is buttressed by the increasingly aggressive actions of the various navies in the Indian Ocean. In January, South Korean commandos raided a freighter, killing eight pirates and capturing five. Then, in February, Danish commandos secured another ship after crewmen locked themselves in a safe room and radioed for help.
Nevertheless, International officials acknowledge that whatever they've been doing so far, it hasn't deterred the pirates. The piracy monitoring group Ecoterra says Somali pirates now hold more than 800 crew on 40 ships. Said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the four Americans were killed: "We've got to have a more effective approach to maintaining security on the seas, in the ocean lanes that are so essential to commerce and travel."