When the two pirates boarded the U.S.S. Sterett off the coast of Somalia on Monday, American officials thought they were headed for a breakthrough in the four-day standoff with a gang that had seized four Americans vacationing on their 58-foot yacht.
But an F.B.I. hostage-rescue negotiator aboard the Sterett came to believe the two Somalis were not serious. So the Americans took them into custody and told the pirates back on the yacht to send over someone they could do business with.
What happened next is sharply contested and raises questions about the crucial decision to detain the pirate leaders.
American officials said the pirates on the yacht, called the Quest, seemed relieved — even “exceptionally calm” — when told their senior commander was cooling his heels in a Navy brig.
But hours later, panic ensued among young pirates. Some Americans theorized that a fight had broken out among the gang members, suddenly leaderless, and fearing they were about to be overtaken by the four Navy warships that surrounded them.
One person who has talked to associates of the pirates said their leader had told them that if he did not return, they should kill the hostages, though American officials say they do not know that to be the case.
How to combat pirates
The death of the four Americans — the yacht’s owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and two crew members, Phyllis Macay and Robert A. Riggle of Seattle — is certain to add momentum to a wide-ranging review the Obama administration is conducting on how to combat the growing threat from bands of Somali pirates.
The episode began last Friday, when the Quest sent out a distress signal 275 miles from the coast of Oman, in open waters between Mumbai and Djibouti.
A Yemeni fishing vessel that served as a mother ship for the pirates was seen near the yacht when it was hijacked by pirates in a smaller craft, maritime officials said, but it disappeared once the American warships drew near.
As the military converged on the yacht, officials learned that there might be a way to negotiate with the pirates’ financiers and village elders, who could have acted as shore-based intermediaries if communication permitted. But for unknown reasons these contacts did not pan out.
On Monday, the two pirates boarded the Sterett, which had pulled within 600 yards of the Quest, to conduct face-to-face negotiations, apparently knowing that it was unlikely they could get away with the yacht or its passengers.
One of the pirate negotiators was a seasoned commander, who had several successful hijackings under his belt, according to one person who has regular contacts with pirate cells.
The F.B.I. agent involved was a hostage negotiator from a special team based at Quantico, Va., who was experienced in both domestic and international hostage crises, a law enforcement official said Wednesday. It was unclear whether the agent had ever negotiated with Somali pirates.
The two pirates were brought on board “in a good-faith attempt to negotiate the safe release of the hostages” a military official said. Once the Americans came to believe they were not serious, the official said, the pirate commander and his ally were detained and their fellow pirates were notified.
“The pirates who were brought aboard the ship never communicated back to their pirate allies on the Quest,” said the official, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of the F.B.I. investigation.
“The pirates on the Quest seemed relieved and were exceptionally calm in discussions with the negotiator,” said the military official. He said the Americans placed an offer on the table. The pirates could take the Quest, or another small Navy boat. But they had to release the hostages and could not take them to join the hundreds of travelers who are believed being held for ransom in pirate strongholds.
The pirates communicated back that they wanted to sleep on the offer, the military official said. The Americans agreed, giving them eight hours.
Whatever calm the pirates displayed on the surface masked a roiling split, according to one person who has been in contact with Somali pirate cells, including people who were in communication with others who know those aboard the Quest.
'We don't kill hostages'
Somali pirate specialists say the pirates once had an informal code that required members to treat one another well and not harm hostages, valuable commodities who draw ransom payments on average of $4 million.
But while Somali pirates might once have been a tight-knit group motivated by money, not murder, pirates and pirate experts say the lure of big money was attracting less-disciplined young Somalis hungry to share in the new riches.
Somali pirates interviewed Wednesday said something must have gone very wrong in the case of the Quest, since killing hostages is bad for business and is almost certain to draw a more aggressive response from countries like the United States.
“We don’t kill hostages,” said a pirate in Hobyo who gave his middle name as Hassan. “We have many hostages here, and we treat them well. But the pirates might have been angered by the Americans.”
The person in contact with pirate cells said a gun fight had broken out below deck on the Quest, likely over money or the hostages’ fate.
American officials theorize this may have been the case. Five minutes after the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett, and small arms fire erupted, 15 Navy SEAL commandos stormed the yacht. The hostages were dead or dying. American officials said it was unclear whether they had been executed or killed in the pirates’ cross-fire. Other pirate hostages have died in captivity or during rescue attempts, but there are few, if any, cases of pirates intentionally killing hostages.
The commandos shot and killed one pirate and stabbed another. Two other pirates were found dead, apparently killed by their comrades, and 13 surrendered to the Americans.
“While the pirates clearly knew, from the beginning of our negotiations, that we were not going to allow the Quest to make shore, they gave no warning, no visible signs whatsoever that the hostages’ lives were in danger,” said the military official. The senior law enforcement official added, “These incidents, by their very nature, often move at a rapid pace which requires difficult decisions in real time.”
Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.
This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.