As dusk began to fall Sunday, the Somali pirates holding captain Richard Phillips had grown edgy.
As they bobbed in the ocean near the USS Bainbridge, a Navy destroyer sent to rescue Phillips, the teenage pirates were experiencing withdrawal after days without khat, a mildly narcotic leaf chewed in for its stimulant effects. "They were realizing they were in a no-win situation," said a senior U.S. military official. "They were floating around in rough waters, they were tired. . . . These guys didn't have their chew with them."
After the on-scene commander judged that Phillips's life was suddenly in immediate jeopardy, three shots rang out from the Bainbridge in indistinguishable succession, felling the three pirates in the lifeboat. Bound tightly, Phillips could not move to celebrate the end of his ordeal until Navy SEALs climbed aboard the small craft and set him free.
"It was pretty remarkable that these snipers nailed these guys," said the senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You think of rough seas, 75, 80 feet away, and under darkness, and they got them. Three pirates, three rounds, three dead bodies."
One of world’s most unstable nations
The precision volley culminated a five-day confrontation on the pale blue seas off one the world's most unstable nations, a place that still haunts U.S. foreign-policy makers with images of dead Army Rangers being dragged through the capital during a failed U.S. intervention in the 1990s.
This time the Navy took the lead against a force of four, and then three, Somali pirates confined to the cramped quarters of a cargo ship's lifeboat. But the challenge of preserving the life of Phillips, a 53-year-old Vermont resident, loomed large enough for President Obama's new national security operation that he was briefed as many as five times a day as three U.S. warships and an 18-foot dinghy squared off on the Indian Ocean.
Three deft sniper shots ended a drama that appeared initially as another example of a muscle-bound U.S. military unable to adapt to today's unpredictable security threats. In the end, U.S. Special Operations Forces easily defeated lightly armed, untrained men in a battle that U.S. officials say will not end piracy.
The pirates had probably been tracking the Maersk Alabama for days when on Wednesday four pirates in a small craft tossed ropes and grappling hooks from the shadow of the cargo ship's looming blue hull. They carried pistols and AK-47 assault rifles.
The Maersk Alabama's crew, a mix of young men and veterans, locked themselves in safe areas of the ship as they were trained to do. Some improvised.
One sailor, A.T.M. Reza, forced one of the pirates into the engine room, where he stabbed the pirate in the hand. The crew then used the wounded pirate as leverage to force his comrades from the ship.
As part of the negotiations, Phillips agreed to board the lifeboat with the pirates, crew members said. The deal called for him to swim back to the Maersk Alabama once the lifeboat was safely away. The pirates never let him go.
The USS Bainbridge had by then steamed more than 300 miles to arrive on the scene. Aided by FBI agents, the ship's officers communicated with the pirates by radio, eventually persuading them to allow a boat with provisions to approach.
Sometime Thursday, a desperate Phillips jumped from the lifeboat in an attempt to swim to the USS Bainbridge, only to be hauled back on board after the pirates opened fire. From then on, Phillips was tied up.
One pirate radioed the Navy destroyer and demanded to know how far they were from the sanctuary of Somalia's coast.
"Very far," came the reply from the Bainbridge.
"Thank you," the pirate negotiator responded, according to a U.S. military timeline, his politeness masking menace. "If we cannot [reach the] Somali coast, we will kill the infidel."
According to Somali elders and a pirate in the coastal fishing village of Harardhere, the pirates were demanding $6 million in ransom and safe passage to shore in exchange for Phillips's release.
But the negotiations collapsed Friday over whether the pirates would be arrested, the local elders said.
In Washington that Friday evening, Obama received two national security briefings on the situation. Based on those reports, the White House said, the president gave "the Department of Defense policy guidance and certain authorities to allow U.S. forces to engage in potential emergency actions."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that the Defense Department twice requested the authority to use deadly force because two groups of Special Operations Forces were involved in the operation. Each required its own sanction. He said that "the approval was given virtually immediately in both cases."
A senior administration official said that the president did not deny any operational request made to him and that he knew the broad outlines of the operation that the Navy had planned. The official said that "our people tried a variety of ways to resolve the situation peacefully, and the guidance all along was that the overriding interest was the captain's life."
Gates said the four pirates involved in taking Phillips hostage were 17 to 19 years old -- "untrained teenagers with heavy weapons." The pirate whom Reza wounded in the hand asked the USS Bainbridge for medical attention, effectively surrendering.
On Saturday evening dozens of Navy SEALs parachuted from C-17 transport aircraft into the sea, making their way with inflatable Zodiacs to the Bainbridge.
By Sunday, the pirates had run out of fuel. Rising weather whipped up the seas, and the drifting pirates agreed to allow the USS Bainbridge to tow them to calmer waters. By then, the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship with 1,000 crew members, and the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton had joined the Bainbridge.
The lifeboat, once strung out roughly 200 feet from the Bainbridge, had been pulled to within 80 feet of the fantail, a deck at the vessel's stern.
Navy SEAL snipers, monitoring the lifeboat through rifle scopes, watched as two pirates raised their heads out of a lifeboat hatch. Inside the lifeboat, the third pirate moved toward the captain, pointing his AK-47 at his back.
Thinking Phillips was about to be killed, the on-scene commander gave the snipers the order to fire. When a Navy SEAL arrived at the lifeboat, Phillips was bound, according to the senior military official, who said the captain "was anchored to the interior of the boat."
Crew speaks out
News of the rescue filtered out to the crew on the Maersk Alabama, docked at the Kenyan port of Mombasa, on Sunday evening.
With the 18 other members of the crew around him, first mate Shane Murphy said at a Monday news conference that "right now, right this minute, ships are being taken." He called on Obama to "end this pirate scourge."
In remarks Monday at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., Gates said that "there is no purely military solution" to a piracy problem he described as rooted in Somalia's poverty and instability.
In Somalia, in the pirate haven of Harardhere, where locals have benefited from millions of dollars in pirate ransom, the military operation seemed like a bewildering display of force against four errant young men. "It was wrong to kill those pirates," said Aisha Gurey, an Arabic teacher. "The international community is wrong, and the pirates are wrong. But in this case, the strong one has killed the weak one."
The Justice Department is deciding where to send the fourth pirate for trial.
Andrea Phillips, the wife of Richard Phillips, could barely speak at a Monday celebration held at the Sheraton hotel in Burlington, Vt. Her voice was almost inaudible because of laryngitis. But a look and a touch said it all.
As a spokeswoman for the Maersk Line shipping company read Andrea Phillips's written statement at a podium, the captain's wife sat silently on one side, her hand grasped firmly by her daughter, Mariah. At one point, the mother looked up at her 18-year-old daughter and they smiled at each other, seemingly oblivious to the scores of reporters in the room.
"I spoke to Richard earlier today," Andrea Phillips said, and he thought it "was kind of funny when I told him I was preparing a press statement today."
"We did not know what Richard was enduring while being held hostage on the lifeboat, and that was really the hardest part -- the wondering," her statement said. "My family and closest friends held on to our faith knowing that Richard would come home."
McCrummen reported from Mombasa, Kenya. Staff writers Carrie Johnson and Michael D. Shear in Washington and Keith B. Richburg in Burlington, Vt., and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.