Somali gunmen killed four American citizens aboard a hijacked yacht earlier on Tuesday in a bloody incident that highlights the growing reach and increasingly lethal nature of the pirates operating out of Somalia, one of the world’s poorest and most lawless nations.
The killings brought a sudden and violent end to the multiday drama taking place on the Quest, a small yacht that was captured by at least 19 Somali pirates while en route to Oman this past weekend.
U.S. military officials had spent the past several days negotiating for the safe return of the four Americans who were being held: Jean and Scott Adam, who owned the yacht, and their friends Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. A pair of pirates had been brought to a nearby American warship, the USS Sterett, to take part in the talks.
Just after 1 a.m. EST, pirates on board the Quest abruptly fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett, which was about 600 yards away, according to military officials. Moments later, sailors aboard the Sterett heard gunfire on the Quest. Elite Special Operations commandos raced to the yacht, only to find that the four Americans had been shot and badly wounded. The commandos provided first aid on the scene, but the Adams and their companions died before they could be evacuated from the Quest. President Obama was informed of the deaths at 4:42 a.m., White House officials said.
As they searched the rest of the yacht, the Special Operations team found the bodies of two dead pirates. The Americans shot another pirate dead and killed a second Somali in a close-quarters knife fight, military officials said. The commandos took 13 other pirates alive. Those pirates, along with the two Somalis who had been negotiating aboard the Sterett, are being held on a U.S. warship while military personnel and agents from the FBI investigate the incident.
The shootings underscore the growing dangers posed by the Somali pirates who have been raiding commercial and private vessels for the past several years. The pirates initially operated from makeshift bases along the troubled country’s lengthy coastline, which meant that they were largely limited to operations against vessels traveling close to Somalia’s territorial waters. They captured dozens of vessels and took hundreds of hostages, earning tens of millions of dollars in ransoms along the way.
In recent months, the pirates have begun sending “mother ships” containing teams of gunmen and multiple motorized boats farther and farther from Somalia. The mother ships, in turn, enable pirates to reach vessels operating hundreds of nautical miles away from Somalia. The Quest, for instance, had just left Oman and was passing through what are generally considered to be safe waters when it was seized by the Somalis.
Vice Adm. Mark Fox, who commands all U.S. naval forces in the region, told reporters at the Pentagon that pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden, the nearest major waterway to Somalia, had declined in recent months because of concerted counter-piracy efforts by the U.S., NATO, and the European Union, which operate 34 warships in the region.
But Fox said that pirates now regularly operate as much as 1,400 nautical miles from Somalia, placing ships near India and Madagascar at risk of attack. The U.S.-led forces running counter-piracy operations lack the resources to patrol such a broad swath of water, Fox said.
"It's a vast, vast area," Fox said. “There's a lot of places where we are not."
Fox, speaking from his headquarters in Bahrain, said that the U.S. Special Operations forces didn’t fire any shots while boarding the Quest, which he said meant that the four Americans had been killed by their captors, not during the attempted rescue. The pirates were apparently trying to bring the four American hostages onto Somali soil, presumably so it would be more difficult to secure their release, Fox said.
“It was clear that the pirates wanted to get the yacht to Somalia,” he said.
Scott and Jean Adam, a deeply religious Christian couple from Southern California, began what they envisioned as a decadelong missionary trip in 2004, according to their Web site, which has since been taken down. The couple had hoped to use their ship to deliver copies of the New Testament to hard-to-reach places around the world, the site said. The couple had been planning to sail to Egypt, Crete, Turkey ,and London later this year.
Adam, who was in his mid-60s, had worked as an associate producer in Hollywood before enrolling in seminary about 10 years ago, according to Fred Messick, a spokesman for Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Adam earned his master’s degree in theology last year and a master’s in divinity degree from the seminary in 2000. He was involved in Fuller’s Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts since then, Messick said.
The Seattle couple, Phyllis Macay, 59, and Bob Riggle, 67, had been on a world tour on their own yacht, the Gaia, but recently joined up with the Adams on the Quest. Macay, according to Furniture Today, was on sabbatical from her job as vice president of training development for Profitability Consulting Group, which specializes in working with furniture retailers. John Eggers, the company’s chief executive officer, told the publication that Macay had requested a sabbatical about three years ago to "go sailing for a year or two, and it shifted into three years and now this." Riggle was a retired veterinarian.
Both couples had been sailing with Blue Water Rallies, an organization that organizes long-distance group trips for yacht owners. Macay and Riggle had already traveled with the group around the world from 2007 to 2009 on the Gaia, according to a statement on the Blue Water Rallies website. The couple “enjoyed it so much that they came back to do it again as crew on various rally yachts,” the statement said.
The Quest was part of a group of ships that left Mumbai in early February, but it broke off on February 15 to head to Djibouti for a refueling stop.
“Ironically, after more than six years of roaming the globe together, they joined our rally for the added security we could offer through the Gulf of Aden,” Blue Water Rallies said in its statement. “Sadly, they did not get that far, as the pirate activity has spread out across the Indian Ocean at an alarming rate over the past few months.”
In the statement, the group said it was “stunned and devastated” by the four deaths.
Both couples had used websites to keep friends and family members up-to-date on their travels. In one of her final postings, Jean Adam said she was looking forward to the stop in Djibouti.
“Djibouti is a big refueling stop,” she wrote. “I have NO idea what will happen in these ports, but perhaps we'll do some local touring. Due north is the Red Sea where we plan to tuck in when winds turn to the north.”