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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Somali Pirates Kill American Hostages from Captured Yacht

Somali pirates reportedly have killed 4 Americans on hijacked yacht off Somalia:
The four Americans aboard a yacht hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia are dead.

Hijacked by Somali last Friday off Oman, the Quest was being piloted toward the Somali coast - and was being shadowed by a U.S. Navy warship.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports that gunshots aboard the yacht were heard, and the warship took action.

All four Americans were dead, killed apparently by their captors. There were more than a dozen pirates on board, some dead and others captured, Martin reports
U.S. Central Command report:
At approximately 1 a.m. EST today, while negotiations were ongoing to secure the release of four American hostages, U.S. forces responded to gunfire aboard the pirated vessel (S/V) Quest. As they responded to the gunfire, reaching and boarding the Quest, the forces discovered all four hostages had been shot by their captors. Despite immediate steps to provide life-saving care, all four hostages ultimately died of their wounds.

“We express our deepest condolences for the innocent lives callously lost aboard the Quest,” said Gen James N. Mattis, U.S. Central Command Commander.

During the boarding of the Quest, the reaction force was engaged by pirates on board the vessel. Two pirates died during the confrontation and 13 were captured and detained along with two pirates already in US Forces custody. The US Forces also found the remains of two other pirates already dead aboard the Quest. In total, it is believed 19 pirates were involved in the hijacking of the S/V Quest.

USS Leyte Gulf

USS Enterprise
USS Bulkeley
USS Sterett
US Forces have been closely monitoring the S/V Quest for approximately 3 days, once it became known to be pirated. Four U.S. Navy warships comprised the response force dedicated to recovering the S/V Quest: the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55), the guided-missile destroyers USS Sterett (DDG 104) and USS Bulkeley (DDG 84). The ships are deployed to the region to conduct maritime security operations and to provide support to operations Enduring Freedom and New Dawn.
Piracy and murder trials will surely follow.
UPDATE2: More info from a press brief by Admiral Fox:
Vice Admiral Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet, told reporters at the Pentagon by telephone from Bahrain that the boarding party was U.S. special operations forces and they met no resistance at first. However, during the search of the vessel they killed two pirates, one in a knife fight and the other by gunshot, and they found two others already dead.
Fox said the pirates are in Navy custody and the plan is to bring them “to a judicial process and hold them accountable for their activities.”

The Navy has been tracking the pirated yacht since Feb. 18, when it was spotted by a Royal Danish Navy ship off the coast of Oman, Fox said. “We have seen a growing problem here in terms of the pirate activity off the coast of Somalia,” Fox said.
A knife fight? Transcript of VADM Fox comments here. You can download the audio here.

UPDATE: What law may apply?
It may depend on exactly where the deaths occurred. If in international waters, then international law of the sea (and the treaties, etc that compose that) may apply. While the United States is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is a signatory to the predecessor to that Convention - the 1958 Convention on the Law of the Sea. Article 15 of the 1958 Convention reads:

Article 15
Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
(1) Any illegal acts of violence, detention or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(a) On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(b) Against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(2) Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(3) Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph 1 or subparagraph 2 of this article.
Under U.S. law, piracy is punishable by life imprisonment.

Murder, on the other hand, may be punishable by death.

It may depend on whether or not the boat was U.S. flagged. If it was U.S. flagged, U.S. law will apply. The FBI says
When a crime does occur at sea, several factors determine whether the U.S. has legal jurisdiction. A complicated weave of international law applies, but as a rule, the FBI leads investigations of the following scenarios:
If the ship is U.S.-owned, regardless of the nationality of the victim or perpetrator;
If it's an act of terrorism against the U.S.
UPDATE3: Looks like the FBI is involved.

There is a nice bit of legislation that may apply, US Code, Title 18, Ch. 111, Sec. 2280:

§ 2280. Violence against maritime navigation

(a) Offenses.—
(1) In general.— A person who unlawfully and intentionally—
(A) seizes or exercises control over a ship by force or threat thereof or any other form of intimidation;
(B) performs an act of violence against a person on board a ship if that act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship;
(C) destroys a ship or causes damage to a ship or to its cargo which is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship;
(D) places or causes to be placed on a ship, by any means whatsoever, a device or substance which is likely to destroy that ship, or cause damage to that ship or its cargo which endangers or is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship;
(E) destroys or seriously damages maritime navigational facilities or seriously interferes with their operation, if such act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of a ship;
(F) communicates information, knowing the information to be false and under circumstances in which such information may reasonably be believed, thereby endangering the safe navigation of a ship;
(G) injures or kills any person in connection with the commission or the attempted commission of any of the offenses set forth in subparagraphs (A) through (F); or
(H) attempts or conspires to do any act prohibited under subparagraphs (A) through (G),
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both; and if the death of any person results from conduct prohibited by this paragraph, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
(2) Threat to navigation.— A person who threatens to do any act prohibited under paragraph (1)(B), (C) or (E), with apparent determination and will to carry the threat into execution, if the threatened act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of the ship in question, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
(b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a)—
(1) in the case of a covered ship, if—
(A) such activity is committed—
(i) against or on board a ship flying the flag of the United States at the time the prohibited activity is committed;
(ii) in the United States; or
(iii) by a national of the United States or by a stateless person whose habitual residence is in the United States;
(B) during the commission of such activity, a national of the United States is seized, threatened, injured or killed; or
(C) the offender is later found in the United States after such activity is committed;
(2) in the case of a ship navigating or scheduled to navigate solely within the territorial sea or internal waters of a country other than the United States, if the offender is later found in the United States after such activity is committed; and
(3) in the case of any vessel, if such activity is committed in an attempt to compel the United States to do or abstain from doing any act.(emphasis added)
Of course, some would rather see these pirates hanging from yardarms after a brief trial at sea.

Our ancestors had their own techniques for dealing with murder at sea:
In England in the 13th century it was enacted that anybody who committed murder on the king's ships would be tied to their victims body and thrown into the sea to drown.
Of course, we live in the 21st century. I'll bet some government lawyers are working overtime on this.

UPDATE4: Naturally, there are reports that it was all started by the U.S.. This report should be judged on the basis of the veracity of some unknown pirate accomplice who has no reason to portray the incident in any light unfavorable to his companions. Even if true, the U.S. did not pirate the boat and was not holding 4 people hostages. The U.S. would have been within its rights to kill all the pirates as they came into sight.

Remember that these pirates, who now range across the Indian Ocean, claim justification for their acts because of illegal fishing and dumping in Somali waters, neither of which the 4 Americans were involved with.


  1. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Why are commercial shipping companies hesitant to arm merchant vessels or hire armed guards?

  2. Because the laws involving weapons on ships are complex and open ships to seizure and the crews to imprisonment.

  3. Anonymous3:57 PM

    A few days ago we all expressed our concerns that the 4 American hostages chances of survival were not good. Unfortunately that concern has come true and now the legal system(s) will take over and hopefully dispense justice.

    What should the rules of hostage negotiation (if any) and rules of engagement be moving forward?

  4. Anonymous4:33 PM

    What are your thoughts on the XE (formerly Blackwater) vessel that was outfitted in support of anti-pirating operations?

  5. Doesn't that always have to proceed on a case by case basis?

    Any "hard" rules seem out of the question.

    Generally, however, Sun Tzu had it right - "To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape." - We need to make sure the pirates know there is a way out other than death.

  6. Anonymous8:04 PM

    The surest indication of the outcomes of the legal processing of terrorist/pirates is the huge smiles on the faces of the pirates when they land on US soil and are greeted by the press and the lawyers.....

  7. Anonymous10:29 PM

    So what are the odds that the pirates came from the mothership that the Navy didn't sink back in early Feb?

  8. While it is important to have the pirtes know that there is an option, that of giving up piracy, that will allow tham to live, not taking up that option will make thier death very much an option we will very much consider. Still, there are those higher up the pirate food chain, those who organize and outfit the pirates that need to be hunted down, and terminated. That is probably the solution that will have the longest lasting effect on reduction of piracy in the region.

  9. Anonymous12:28 AM

    Why not to triangulate the cell/satellite phone calls and hit with the precision weapon like Russians did with Chechen terrorist leader in early 90-ties. Target every call and strike the source. Eliminate one by one, methodically

  10. Claude Berube6:37 AM

    You asked: "What are your thoughts on the XE (formerly Blackwater) vessel that was outfitted in support of anti-pirating operations?"

    Xe, functionally, no longer exists in that field. Their ship reportedly was sold last year. To the best of my knowledge there are only one or two other companies based out of the UK which operate escort vessels in the Gulf of Aden. Those particular vessels do not have the fuel capacity to escort ships in the Indian Ocean.

  11. Scott and last Anon:
    The remote pirate masters who fund the operations are one of the issues that needs to be resolved to stop Somali pirates. One of the other issues is the nature of what Somalia has become.

    The Department of State and other agencies are pursuing the former, but the latter is the sticky mess that no one wants to address, although everyone speaks about it.

  12. From the AP: Only minutes before the military announced that the four Americans had died, a Somali pirate told AP by phone that if the yacht were attacked, "the hostages will be the first to go."

    Seems to me like that phone call should have been traced (easy to do), and the entire grid square flattened with an air strike. If their policy is to kill hostages first, then they need to see a response from our side.

    In your opinion, why hasn't more tangible action happened on the part of the US Military?