Somali pirates: Do shootings of four Americans point to armed escalation?

In the past, pirates have been very reluctant to harm captives, but on Tuesday, four Americans taken hostage by Somali pirates were killed.

Dave Jenkins/UK Ministry of Defence/AP
In this image made available by Britain's Ministry of Defence, members of a naval boarding party from HMS Cornwall uncover arms and ammunition during a search of a Somali pirate dhow in the Indian Ocean on Feb. 10. A search of the vessel uncovered AK47's, a grenade launcher, rocket propelled grenades, and large amounts of ammunition.

Four Americans taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean were killed by their captors early Tuesday while US Navy forces were attempting to negotiate their release, according to the US military.

The tragedy marked the first time that US citizens have died at the hands of pirates, who in recent years have swarmed over ships in the region. It occurred only days after a US federal judge sentenced a captured Somali pirate to 34 years in prison – a stiff penalty meant to deter armed maritime attacks.

It’s unclear exactly why the pirates would have shot their hostages, since US forces were so close, says Jennifer Cooke, head of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. In essence, the four captured US boaters were all that stood between the Somalis and US guns.

In the past, pirates have been very reluctant to harm captives. The hostages are their perceived ticket to wealth, after all.

“The pirates’ interest to date has been keeping the hostages safe and making money,” says Ms. Cooke. “This isn’t an ideological battle. It’s a matter of cash.”

In general, however, recent months have seen more reports of rough pirate tactics, in terms of beating up a ship's crew and passengers, Cooke says. The Somalis are also carrying more weapons.

This may be a response to the fact that ships plying the waters off Somalia are increasingly armed and ready to repel invaders.

“So you do see a kind of escalation of defense and offensive tactics that may lead to more hostage deaths,” says the CSIS Africa expert.

In the latest case, a US special-operations team quickly boarded the hijacked yacht after hearing gunfire, but it was too late to save the hostages. Two pirates died in the ensuing fight and 13 were captured, said Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of naval forces for US Central Command, in a televised briefing.

The killings came only days after a Somali pirate received a prison term of nearly 34 years in a New York courtroom.

The pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was one of four who seized the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama and its crew of 20 off the Somali coast in 2009. After several days, during which ship captain Richard Phillips was held hostage in a lifeboat, Navy SEAL snipers killed the other three pirates.

While the United States hopes the stiff sentence might make young Somalis think twice about hefting a gun and setting out on the high seas, the pirates themselves are very low in the piracy hierarchy. The lion’s share of hostage ransom money is kept by ringleaders – financiers and organizers who never venture far from shore.

In Somalia, it is likely that there are still many young men whose personal situation is so dire that the risk of seizing ships at sea looks small compared with the possible reward.

The Americans slain Tuesday were identified by military officials as Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle.

US forces had been monitoring the Americans’ hijacked yacht, the Quest, since shortly after it was seized by pirates last Friday. Four Navy ships were involved, including the USS Enterprise.

Negotiations were under way onboard a US vessel for the hostages’ release when pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade from the Quest toward the USS Sterett, a guided-missile destroyer. This missed. Then gunfire erupted on the Quest.

Fox of Central Command said he had no details of the nature of the hostage negotiations.

Besides the two pirates who died after US forces boarded the Quest, US military personnel discovered the bodies of two pirates onboard the vessel. It was unclear if the pirates had fought among themselves.

According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, President Obama had authorized the use of force against the pirates if the lives of the hostages appeared to be in imminent danger.

“We express our deepest condolences for the innocent lives callously lost aboard the Quest,” said Gen. James Mattis, commander of US Central Command.

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