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Navy snipers had multiple chances to shoot Somali pirates

Before ending a standoff with pirates by firing three fatally precise shots, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers had passed on multiple opportunities to fire.

The marksmen had moved into position after the White House expanded the authority it had given the world’s most powerful navy against a ragtag foe holding an American hostage. They kept their scopes trained on their Somali targets as prospects for a peaceful resolution seemed to shrivel.

But most of all, they waited as a series of seemingly insignificant moves -- from extending the pirates a rope to bringing an injured brigand on-board -- improved their odds of success.

“Bringing them in closer gave them a smoother ride,” said a senior U.S. military official, describing internal deliberations on condition of anonymity. “Also, if we had to take kinetic action -- as we did in this case -- the shot would have greater potential for success.”

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Even as details about the daring rescue were still emerging, U.S. national security officials were trying to assess whether it might lead to an escalation in violent tactics along the Somali coast, and were warning that a surge in pirate activity would be difficult to bring under control.

President Obama, in his first public remarks on the rescue, pledged Monday to mount a sustained campaign against the escalating attacks on ships off Somalia.

“I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of [piracy] in that region,” Obama said. “We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.”

Piracy, with the prospect of million-dollar ransoms, has spawned an industry on the Somali coast and led to the creation of specialized teams, some expert at ship assaults and others that focus on negotiation.

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“There’s a level of organization to these pirates,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. “We’ve even seen some coordination among different groups.”

Obama was briefed on the crisis at least 18 times, including a National Security Council session on “hostage contingencies” just hours before the snipers fired their shots. But the crisis seems to have crystallized for the administration on Friday, after the White House got word that Capt. Richard Phillips had tried to escape from his captors.

The escape attempt had presented an early rescue opportunity for the military. But the Navy had no warning that Phillips was going to attempt to flee. Although a military special operations team had been mobilized, it had not yet arrived, and the Navy had no way to capitalize on Phillips’ gumption.

Instead, the incident underscored the danger Phillips was in as the pirates fired their AK-47s at him as he tried to swim away, then beat him after dragging him back aboard the boat.

Hours later, senior NSC officials met in the White House Situation Room to draft a series of options to deliver to Obama. Later that night, Obama appears to have issued his first order authorizing the use of lethal force.

But military officials said the White House still hoped for a nonviolent end to the standoff.

“The president wanted the opportunity to say, ‘Have we tried everything to make this reach a peaceful conclusion?’ ” said the senior military official. “He wanted to be a check valve so that everybody was looking at all options.”

The next morning, the authority to use lethal force was expanded for what the White House described as an “additional set of U.S. forces,” an apparent reference to the arrival of the SEALs off the Somali coast.

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The first small contingent of SEALs parachuted into the waters around the destroyer Bainbridge at 5:10 a.m. on Saturday. A larger contingent of SEALs arrived at 6:30 p.m.

Once there, the SEALs began to position themselves and readied small, Zodiac-style inflatable boats to maneuver near the lifeboat that held the captain and pirates.

The military official said the SEAL snipers had multiple opportunities to shoot the pirates. But the team held off, not believing Phillips was in imminent peril and hoping they could persuade the pirates to give themselves up peacefully.

Military officials had what they thought was a breakthrough Sunday morning. About 6:40 a.m., a small boat carrying SEAL team members approached the lifeboat, to check on Phillips and try to talk to the pirates.

The youngest pirate asked the SEALs if he could come aboard the Bainbridge to make a phone call. The pirate had been stabbed in the hand during the initial assault Wednesday on the Alabama, and the wound had become infected.

The military took the pirate aboard, gave him a clean set of clothes and treated his wound. Officers hoped that if they treated that pirate well, the others would surrender.

“Let’s show these guys we are serious about the fact that if you give yourself up you won’t be harmed,” said the military official, explaining the thinking behind the treatment of the surrendering pirate. “It didn’t have the effect we had hoped.”

The pirate did speak to the others over the radio, urging them to give themselves up. But the plea failed and military officials believe his surrender may have made the remaining pirates all the more desperate.

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As Sunday dragged on, the seas grew rougher and Navy officers offered to tow the lifeboat behind the Bainbridge, telling the pirates that they would move them to calmer waters.

When the pirates initially agreed to hitch their boat to the Bainbridge on Sunday evening, they were towed from a distance of 200 feet. But the ride was still choppy. The Bainbridge began pulling the boat to within 75 or 80 feet, explaining to the pirates that moving the vessel toward the destroyer would stabilize their boat.

The snipers probably took positions on catwalks or the ship’s rear-facing fantail that obscured them from the pirates’ view. And the Navy made the snipers’ task easier by getting the pirates to let themselves be tethered to the ship.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned dead into the swells,” the military official said, describing how the Navy is likely to have used the warship to plow through waves and draw the rescue craft closer in a relatively smooth wake.

“From that range,” he said, “they’ve got a fairly good margin of error.”

Indeed, military officials said that once the lifeboat was tethered to the destroyer, the pirates grew more desperate, feeling that they had lost control of their boat and the situation.

The pirates also were probably experiencing a withdrawal from khat, a narcotic leaf chewed by many Somali men, according to the senior military official. Withdrawal from the amphetamine-like stimulant can induce depression.

Aboard the hot and cramped lifeboat, tensions escalated. Watching from the Bainbridge, the snipers observed an apparent argument between Phillips and one of the pirates.

Military officers talking with the lifeboat by radio also noticed that the pirates had become more agitated.

“They broke off the last communication,” said the senior military official. “And, again, they said, ‘If we don’t get what we are demanding, we will kill the captain.’ ”

About an hour and a half after tying the lifeboat to the Bainbridge, the SEAL team observed two of the pirates move away from Phillips and stick their heads out from a hatch. The third pirate raised his weapon at Phillips’ back.

Convinced that Phillips was about to be shot, the SEAL commander gave the order to fire.

“If the goal was just to kill these guys, there were opportunities where we could have shot them,” the senior official said. “This was not the outcome we wanted. We wanted those three guys to give themselves up.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

greg.miller@latimes.com


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