For two days, the four Americans held aboard their yacht by Somali pirates had been shadowed in the Indian Ocean by a U.S. aircraft carrier, two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser. The U.S. military and FBI agents wanted to negotiate; the pirates wanted to reach land.
When one of the destroyers neared the 58-foot sailing boat, gunfire erupted. By the time Navy SEALs reached the Quest, the four Americans had been fatally shot — the first time U.S. citizens were killed in a wave of piracy that has rippled out from the coast of Somalia in recent years.
On Tuesday, a federal court in Virginia will begin jury selection in the capital trial of three Somali pirates charged in the February 2011 deaths of Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle.
Nearly two dozen pirates have been convicted in U.S. courts in connection with the seizure of foreign vessels, but the trial in Norfolk marks the first death penalty case brought against pirates in the United States. The case is part of a multinational legal crackdown that has led to the prosecution of Somali pirates in 20 countries.
The impact of these trials — combined with international naval patrols in the Indian Ocean and efforts by the shipping industry to harden vessels — has been significant.
According to the European Union Naval Force, there have been three attempted attacks on vessels off the coast of Somalia this year, compared with 176 attacks in 2011. None of this year’s attacks succeeded.
Meanwhile, about 1,200 pirates have been arrested overseas, and a significant number of them have been prosecuted in countries close to Somalia, including Kenya and the Seychelles. At one point last year, about 20 percent of the prison population in the Seychelles was Somali pirates, according to officials in the archipelago nation. As Somalia stabilizes, an international contact group on Somali piracy is developing plans to allow pirates to be prosecuted and serve their time in their home country.
Experts said the coming case in Virginia is an important precedent that could further curb piracy.
“Rates of piracy have really plummeted in the Somali context,” said Adjoa Anyimadu, a research associate in the Africa program at Chatham House, a London think tank. “The fact that the death penalty is being looked for is potentially a massive deterrent, and I think there will be lots of debate in Somalia about it.”
Because the U.S. Navy has brought the pirates it has detained to its large base in Norfolk, there has been a string of prosecutions in Virginia. Eleven of the pirates who attacked the Quest pleaded guilty in federal court in 2011 and were given life sentences. The onshore negotiator was also captured and given multiple life sentences in federal court in Virginia.
Federal prosecutors allege that the defendants going on trial this week — Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar — were the ones who shot and killed the four Americans aboard the U.S.-flagged Quest.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers declined to comment before the trial.
In court papers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has said that “if you choose to profit by . . . killing American citizens, rather than letting the Navy rescue them, you are going to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Defense lawyers have argued in pretrial motions that the “results of extensive forensic examination and Navy video of Quest developments are inconclusive as to who exactly shot whom aboard the Quest, and in response to what.” They also allege that the Navy’s aggressive maneuvering to prevent the pirates from reaching land sparked the gunfire that killed the Americans.
The Quest left Mumbai for Salalah, Oman, in early February 2011, the latest leg in a round-the-world trip by retirees Scott Adam, 70, and Jean Adam, 66, that began in New Zealand and zigzagged over several years from port to port. Their friends Riggle, 67, and Macay, 59, joined them as crew members for the trip across the Indian Ocean.
The four traveled in a group of boats for some of the journey but cut away when they neared Oman.
About 200 miles southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, 19 pirates who had been cruising the Indian Ocean for more than a week spotted the Quest. They were trolling the seas in a commandeered Yemeni boat to which they had roped their fast-moving skiff. They were armed with 12 assault rifles and one bazooka with four rockets, according to court papers.
The Quest was easily captured, and the Yemenis and their boat were cut loose after the pirates clambered aboard the American boat. They then turned back toward Somalia.
Two days later, American warships appeared on the horizon. Navy and FBI agents had flown out to the ships after the U.S. government learned about the hijacking, and they established radio communication with the pirates.
Defense lawyers say in court papers that Scott Adam repeatedly told the Navy by radio to keep its distance so as not to trigger a violent response from the pirates.
The U.S. negotiators eventually persuaded two of the Somalis to ferry over to one of the American destroyers, the USS Sterett, for face-to-face negotiations. The leader of the pirate group rejected a deal under which the Somalis would be allowed to keep the Quest but would have to surrender the Americans. “That prompted the Navy to hold the pair,” according to defense papers.
The standoff became tense as Navy vessels closed in on the Quest. One of the pirates fired a rocket at the Sterett, and small-arms fire erupted on the yacht. Navy SEALs then stormed the boat.
Besides the Americans, four of the pirates were killed, three by gunfire and one by knife.