Why did Somali pirates kill four American yachters?

As US forces negotiated the release of four Americans captured while yachting in the Arabian Sea, Somali pirates shot and killed them today. The incident raises questions about the new military approach to piracy.

Joe Grande/AP/File
In this June 11, 2005 file photo, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle are seen on a yacht in Bodega Bay, Calif. The U.S. military says Tuesday, Feb. 22, that pirates killed four American hostages they were holding on the yacht Quest off Somalia's coast. The victims are the Quest's owners, Scott and Jean Adam of California, and Macay and Riggle, both of Seattle.
Reed Saxon/AP
Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, second from right, joins parishioners for a special prayer during morning Mass for two members, Jean and Scott Adam, and their two companions slain by Somali pirates who seized their yacht off East Africa, at St. Monica's Roman Catholic Church in Santa Monica, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 22.

Somali pirates have killed the four Americans they captured last week in the Arabian Sea, according to US Central Command.

The killings are unusual for Somali pirates, since captives are often valuable for ransom. Pirates reportedly received about $1 million for the November release of a pair of British yachters Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were detained for more than a year.

But at a time of increased militarization in the Indian Ocean – with European, Russian, Chinese, Indian, and American navies patrolling sea lanes and carrying out attacks on suspected pirate ships – the Somali gangs have struck back, threatening to kill and mutilate captives in revenge for the killing of Somali pirates by foreign navies.

Top 5 high-profile captures by Somali pirates

Scott and Jean Adam, a husband and wife from California, were taking a seven-year, around-the-world trip on their personal yacht when it was captured Feb. 18 south of Oman's coast. Also aboard the Quest at the time of capture were two Americans from Seattle, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle.

US Central Command said four Navy warships were deployed in an effort to secure the Americans' release, and "negotiations were ongoing" when the shooting occurred at 1 a.m. today. Upon hearing gunfire, US forces boarded the Quest and confronted the pirates, capturing 13 and killing two. Attempts to revive the four Americans were unsuccessful and all four died from the gun wounds.

"We express our deepest condolences for the innocent lives callously lost aboard the Quest," Gen. James Mattis, US Central Command Commander, said in the statement.

There have been a number of high-profile rescue missions in recent months.

On Jan. 20, a Malaysian oil tanker, the Bunga Laurel, was boarded by Somali pirates off the coast Aden, just after having been escorted by a Malaysian Navy escort group. Within two hours, Malaysian special forces returned, shot three pirates, and freed the crew of 23 sailors.

On Jan. 15, a South Korean cargo ship, the Samho Jewelry, was attacked and boarded by pirates some 430 miles from the Somali coast. A South Korean naval destroyer on patrol in the area shadowed the captured ship for several days before striking. After a gun battle, all 21 crew members were rescued, but all eight pirates were shot dead.

Back in Somalia, pirate chief Abdullahi Mohamud Abdulle told Radio Shabelle that his men would take revenge for the pirate deaths by killing other Korean sailors currently being held for ransom. “We are going to avenge the deaths of our dead colleagues,” he said. “We are going to mutilate the bodies of the Koreans we are holding as hostages....”

While increased foreign military presence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea have provoked the wrath of pirates, it is debated whether the naval patrols have curtailed piracy.

“Since EU NAVFOR's inception at the end of 2008 the piracy has started in earnest and it has now completely escalated,” according to a January report from Kenya-based nongovernmental group Ecoterra International, which tracks Somali piracy. “While billions are spend for the navies, the general militarization and mercenaries, still no help is coming forward to pacify and develop the coastal areas of Somalia.”

According to Ecoterra International, 51 foreign vessels and 819 sailors are currently being held captive. However, the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), in a Feb. 22 report (pdf), said Somali pirates are currently holding at least 32 vessels and 692 hostages.

Top 5 high-profile captures by Somali pirates

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