In a bloody, chaotic, early-morning spasm on Feb. 21, Somali pirates killed four American missionaries captured three days earlier aboard the yacht Quest. The U.S. Navy responded, killing two pirates and seizing 15 live pirates.
The incident was among the bloodiest ever in the years-long international “war on piracy,” and marked the first time pirates have killed American citizens. For Washington, the implications are enormous. Now that American blood has been shed, U.S. forces could become more aggressive in their efforts to stop Somali pirates. The bandits, in return, might escalate their own attacks.
However, it’s more likely that America will continue with its current, ineffective approach to the piracy problem. While the killings have horrified and angered many Americans, those feelings can be fleeting. A lack of political willpower could prevent a fresh, more effective strategy for beating sea bandits.
The tragedy began on Feb. 18, when as many as 19 pirates boarded Quest. Aboard were four people in the late middle age: married vessel-owners Scott Underwood Adam and Jean Savage Adam, and passengers Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. The Americans were reportedly transporting Bibles to distribute in countries they visited. They had sailed near the East African coast despite warnings not to do so.
Shortly after the pirates captured Quest, a powerful U.S. Navy force – part of the 30-warship international flotilla patrolling the Indian Ocean – chased after the yacht. The U.S. vessels included the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the destroyers USS Sterett and USS Bulkeley.
Sterett, with a SEAL team aboard, caught up to Quest and began shadowing it. Two pirates came aboard Sterettto negotiate with a Federal Bureau of Investigations team. Talks were ongoing when, around 8:00 in the morning on the third day, someone aboard Quest fired a rocket at Sterett. U.S. sailors heard the sounds of gunfire – presumably the pirates shooting the Adams, Macay and Riggle.
SEALs promptly boarded the yacht, killing two pirates – one by gunfire and the other by knife – and capturing 13 live pirates aboard the vessel (in addition to the two already on Sterett), plus the bodies of two pirates apparently slain in an earlier altercation between the bandits. The four American victims were still alive – but barely. “Despite immediate steps to provide life-saving care, all four hostages ultimately died of their wounds,” the Navy said in a statement.
It’s unclear why the pirates killed the missionaries. Historically, Somali pirates have been careful to avoid harming their captives. “Hostages — especially Westerners — are our only assets, so we try our best to avoid killing them,” a pirate told Wired in 2009. But the killings of pirates have occasionally provoked promises of vengeance from surviving bandits. “We shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now,” one pirate announced in 2008, after U.S. and French forces killed several pirates during separate rescue operations.
There have been signs that pirates are becoming more brutal. In January, South Korean Special Forces killed eight pirates in a rescue operation that liberated 21 hostages. “We never planned to kill, but now we shall seek revenge,” a pirate told Reuters.
In the months following that raid, pirates were seen abusing other South Korean captives. “There have been regular manifestations of systematic torture,” Maj. Gen. Buster Howes, chief of the E.U. counter-piracy force, told the Associated Press in February.
The killings of the four Americans might have been motivated by revenge, but it’s equally possible the murders were the result of a disagreement between the pirates – the same disagreement that earlier had resulted in the deaths of two members of the marauders’ band. Eric Wertheim, author of Combat Fleets of the World, noted the “sizable force” of pirates aboard Quest. so many pirates involved, shares of any ransom would have been relatively diminished – and that could have raised tensions among the bandits.
A better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the killings might have to wait until the 15 captured pirates stand trial in the United States. In the meantime, the military could come under pressure to pursue a more aggressive counter-piracy strategy.
Even so, the Pentagon is being careful not to promise too much. In the days following the killings, top U.S. officers repeated offered their condolences to the victims’ families, but did not specify how the military might prevent similar murders in the future. “There’s an international focus on this, and rightfully, so we’ll continue to pursue it,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said vaguely.
In any event, it’s clear that the current sea-based strategy is not working to deter pirates. “The reason it’s not working is history shows fairly clearly that if you want take on pirates, you can’t do it just from the water alone,” retired Marine Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson said. “You cannot allow them a land sanctuary.”
Greater involvement on land could take the form of raids on pirate bases to deny them sanctuary, or what independent naval analyst Martin Murphy described as “greater political-economic engagement with Puntland,” the semi-autonomous region of Somalia where many pirates are based. A revamped strategy might even combine raids and political efforts.
Wilkerson proposed that the U.S. military model future counter-piracy raids on its operations over Pakistan and Afghanistan. In those countries, the Americans use drone aircraft to spot targets and drones and Special Forces to attack them. “We could use the same techniques that are helping us take out terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan to take out pirates in Somalia,” Wilkerson said.
Murphy said he doubts this will happen. He is also skeptical that the Pentagon will send any additional forces to the Indian Ocean. “There is going to be pressure for more action, although it is unclear to me what this will amount to much given there is no political appetite for raiding pirate bases or putting the number of naval assets in to the region that the problem demands.”
The political approach, Murphy said, “is the only productive course.” But that, too, requires an appetite for intervention that might be lacking in the U.S. administration and the electorate. Americans are likely to demand a solution to the piracy problem, but unlikely to support the hard work a solution implies. As dismay over the killings fades, so too will enthusiasm for an escalated counter-piracy campaign. Despite February’s brutal slayings, the Americans might ultimately continue their current, ineffective strategy for defeating pirates.