DOD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Fox via Telephone from Bahrain on Somali Piracy Aboard the S/V Quest
COL. DAVID LAPAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations): Admiral Fox, it's Colonel Dave Lapan here at the Pentagon. How do you hear me?
ADM. FOX: I hear you loud and clear; how me?
COL. LAPAN: Okay, sir, we have you loud and clear.
Good morning, all, here at the Pentagon. And good afternoon to Admiral Fox in Bahrain, we have with us today to talk to you briefly about the incident involving the Sailing Vessel (S/V) Quest. Vice Admiral Mark Fox is the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. He also serves as commander of the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet and commander of the Combined Maritime Force.
Again, as I mentioned, Admiral Fox is speaking to us from his headquarters in Bahrain. He will make a brief opening statement and then take your questions.
With that, sir, I will turn it over to you.
ADM. FOX: Thank you, and good morning. I'm Vice Admiral Mark Fox. I am commander of the U.S. Naval Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet. I'm speaking to you today from Manama, Bahrain, in my headquarters.
As many of you already know, the four Americans who were being held onboard the Sailing Vessel Quest were killed early this morning by their captors. I want to express my deepest condolences to the family -- families of the crew of the Quest. The loss of our fellow Americans is a tragedy.
We are in the process of investigating and piecing together the events that led to their deaths. And here's what we know right now.
On Friday, February 18th, at about 4 p.m. local time, the Royal Danish Navy Ship Esbern Snare reported to the 5th Fleet Maritime Operations Center that its helicopter had identified a U.S.-flagged, privately owned yacht that may have been pirated. The Sailing Vessel Quest was approximately 190 nautical miles southeast of Masirah Island, Oman, when it was pirated.
The commander of the U.S. Central Command directed for forces, predominantly U.S. Navy ships and aircraft operating in the 5th Fleet area of operations, to investigate the scene. Four U.S. Navy warships responded to the effort to recover the yacht: USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier; Guided Missile Cruiser Leyte Gulf; and Guided Missile Destroyers Sterett and Buckley.
The U.S. Navy warships found and shadowed the Quest, made contact with the pirates via bridge-to-bridge contact, talked to the ship's master and verified the status of the hostages, that were safe at the time, and began a series of negotiations. On Monday, February 21st, two pirates boarded USS Sterett to continue negotiations, and they remained onboard Sterett overnight.
At 8 this morning local time, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired from the Quest by the pirates towards the Sterett. The Sterett was approximately 600 yards away from the Quest.
Immediately thereafter, gunfire also erupted inside the cabin of the Quest. Several pirates appeared on deck and moved up to the bow with their hands in the air in surrender.
U.S. naval reaction forces closed in on the Quest in small boats and boarded the yacht. As they responded to the gunfire, reaching and boarding the Quest, the U.S. sailors discovered that all four hostages had been shot by their captors.
Despite immediate steps to provide life-saving care, all four of the American hostages died of their wounds.
The U.S. sailors also found two pirates already dead on board. While clearing the vessel, two additional pirates were killed. The remaining 15 suspected pirates are in U.S. custody.
There were no reported injuries to U.S. naval personnel or any damage to U.S. ships.
We're in the process now, in conjunction with the FBI, in conducting an investigation into the events that led to the tragic deaths of the hostages. Our thoughts go out to their families.
And at this point, I'll be prepared to take your questions.
COL. LAPAN: Mik?
Q: Admiral, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC. Is there any indication whatsoever, either from the hostages [sic: two pirates] on board the Sterett, or in the bridge-to-bridge communications, as to what may have triggered the shooting of the hostages? And how do you account for the two pirates found dead aboard? Was that pirate-on-pirate as a result of the shooting of the hostages? Can you provide any details?
ADM. FOX: (Off mic) -- speculating on that. There were ongoing negotiations that had continued for a number of days. And this morning, with absolutely no warning, is when the rocket-propelled grenade was fired and the gunfire erupted on board the yacht. And all I can tell you factually is that there were two dead pirates when we came on board the vessel.
Q: (Off mic) -- wounds, Admiral?
ADM. FOX: Yes.
Q: This is David Martin with CBS. Do you know if the four Americans were armed or had weapons on board their yacht?
ADM. FOX: I do not know if there were any weapons on board the yacht from the people that had owned the yacht. I do not know that.
COL. LAPAN: Tony.
Q: Sir, Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. Before the gunfire this morning, how would you describe the negotiations? Were they tense or proceeding apace, and were you surprised by what happened today then?
ADM. FOX: You know, I can't give you a characterization. The intent always had been that this would be a negotiated process and not ever going to a point where we actually had gunfire.
So I can't give you a characterization right now. I'd remind you also that this is an active, ongoing investigation that's being conducted by the FBI that we, the U.S. Navy, are helping with. And so it's a crime scene. And quite honestly, I don't have any information about the tenor or the tone of those negotiations.
Q: Broad question -- was the -- were the pirates launched by one of these mother ships that you've warned about is the new trend in pirating in that region?
ADM. FOX: We assessed that there was a mother ship. I -- right now, the details of that are still somewhat sketchy, but we do assess it to have been a pirated -- or a mother ship that produced the pirates that actually went on board the yacht.
COL. LAPAN: Yochi?
Q: Admiral, this is Yochi Dreazen from National Journal. You mentioned that when the boarding vessels from the U.S. approached the Quest, that there was a further exchange of gunfire.
Are you absolutely positive that the four American hostages were already dead and were not killed in that exchange of gunfire?
ADM. FOX: [During the boarding phase] there was no gunfire by the boarding team whatsoever -- there was no ordinance expended by the boarding team. The gunfire that occurred was the RPG, the rocket-propelled grenade, that was fired [by the pirates] at Sterett. And then as they came on board, there were two dead pirates. There were hostages who had been injured, but – (inaudible) --
Q: -- Got it. And then the two pirates who were killed during the clearing, that was enough after the bodies of four Americans were found that there was no possibility the Americans could have been injured or hurt in that operation?
ADM. FOX: That's correct. [During the clearing phase] the two pirates that were killed thereafter -- one was killed with a firearm; we killed him with a gun, and there was another pirate that died from a knife.
Q: Didn't he just say he killed one? We're confused.
Q: Yeah, we are.
Q: You said that no gunshots were fired, but then you just said that you killed one pirate and the other died from a knife wound. Could you -- did U.S. forces shoot any pirates?
ADM. FOX: And let me -- let me clarify this for just a second. There were no gunshots fired from the boarding team as they boarded -- none. And then as they were clearing the vessel, they did kill one pirate as they were clearing it, and then there was another pirate that was -- that was killed in a knife fight.
Q: How far off the coast of Somalia did this occur?
ADM. FOX: This is approximately -- if you've got a map before you, it's approximately midway between the island of Socotra and the north tip of Somalia. It's a little bit -- if you -- if you had an equidistant point between Socotra and Somalia, it's just a little bit on the closer side to Somalia.
Q: Could I get further clarification? The pirate -- after the boarding team was onboard, was the -- did a U.S. military sailor, whoever it was, shoot and kill a pirate, and stab and kill another pirate?
ADM. FOX: There were two pirates that were dead onboard the vessel when they boarded. As they were clearing it below decks, there were two more pirates who were killed in the clearing process by the boarding team.
COL. LAPAN: Andrew.
Q: Admiral, can you just confirm how many -- it sounds to me like you had 19 pirates total on the ship, two sets of two dead and 15 now in custody.
And also, could you give us a little bit more detail on who this boarding team was? I mean, who left the Sterett and went over to the Quest -- I mean, how many? Were they sailors? Were they SEALs? How many were there? How many boarded the ship? Just give us a little more detail on that.
ADM. FOX: I can't give you the specific numbers. They were U.S. special operations forces.
Q: And how did they -- did they board? Was this by a small boat, or was this by helicopter?
ADM. FOX: They boarded by small boat.
Q: And 19 pirates: Is that accurate?
ADM. FOX: Nineteen total pirates were on board; four are dead; 15 remain.
Q: But two -- were two of those still on the Sterett doing negotiations?
ADM. FOX: Yes.
Q: Admiral, what was the time lapse between the gunshots aboard the yacht until the boarding team reached the yacht?
ADM. FOX: Well, the time distance of the time for small boats to come over, it was -- the Sterett was about 600 yards away. So there was some -- there was a rocket-propelled grenade that was fired towards Sterett, and then there was the sound -- the reports of gunfire from the yacht. And so there was a time distance of some period of time to get the small boats from Sterett over to the -- over to the yacht.
Q: So there was no U.S. rescue operation under way at the time?
ADM. FOX: That is correct.
COL. LAPAN: Justin.
Q: Sir, it's Justin Fishel from Fox. So is it safe to say these were Navy SEALs that boarded the ship? And why do you suppose those two pirates were already killed?
ADM. FOX: You know, that would be -- first of all, they were U.S. special operations forces.
And it would be speculation on my part to tell you how I thought they died. There was obviously gunfire inside the cabin of the yacht. And it took the -- ultimately it injured the hostages in such a way that they were fatally injured, and so I can presume that inside the cockpit of the -- of the vessel was a lot of small-arm fire that -- but that would be part of the ongoing investigation.
Q: Can you say what kind of weapons the pirates had, just so we know?
ADM. FOX: I don't have any specifics on that. I'd seen an early report where we had seen -- they obviously had an RPG because they fired it at the Sterett, and then there were also, you know, the typical things that we see are, you know, the pirates with AK-47s and small arms.
COL. LAPAN: Carlo.
Q: Carlo Munoz with Defense Daily, sir. A quick question on the mother ship. One, is there any additional information on the location of that ship? And once that's fixed, are there any plans to pursue operations against the pirates on that ship?
ADM. FOX: At this point I don't have anything to add to that. And in fact, there is -- there is ongoing efforts going on that I -- that I'm -- I won't go into. But the mother ship, we do assess, as I said, that the 19 pirates went onboard the yacht from a mother ship.
COL. LAPAN: Phil.
Q: Admiral, Phil Ewing with Politico. I wanted to clarify one small detail.
Were the pirates who were aboard the Sterett in communication with their pirate colleagues on the yacht at the time when this all went down? Could they have sent them a message because they were displeased about whatever they had been told?
ADM. FOX: I can't tell you that. I honestly -- I honestly don't know.
Q: Sir, it's Jim Garamone with AFPS. What are you going to do with the 15 pirates that you've captured?
ADM. FOX: Well, they will be -- they're currently in our custody on board one of our ships, and we will go through the appropriate processes to ultimately bring them to a judicial process and hold them -- hold them accountable for their activities.
Q: Two quick questions. On the issue of the timing -- so the American hostages died -- just to be totally clear, they died before the team boarded. So there was a gunshot, they were injured, then the team boarded, and then they died from those previous wounds, not after that? And then the second thing is, this is the deadliest incident involving U.S. hostages taken by pirates that you know of, correct?
ADM. FOX: It is. It is the deadliest incident that I can think of in terms of activities with the pirates. When our team got on board the yacht, there were hostages who were still alive, and we applied and gave first aid immediately to them, but they were fatally injured.
COL. LAPAN: Luis.
Q: Admiral, it's Luis Martinez with ABC. How long -- how long a period were those two pirates aboard Sterett? How long had they been there? At what point were they taken aboard? Were there negotiations to take them aboard, or did they volunteer to go aboard?
ADM. FOX: I'm sorry, can I get you to repeat that question?
COL. LAPAN: Admiral, I'll give it here from the lectern. The period of time at which the two pirates aboard Sterett -- when did they come aboard? Did they voluntarily come aboard as part of the negotiations?
ADM. FOX: The two pirates that came aboard Sterett came on board on the 20th -- no, I'm sorry, on Monday, the 21st was when the two pirates came on board the Sterett, and they remained overnight and remained for the remainder of the evolution.
Q: Charlie Keyes, CNN. Thanks for talking to us, Admiral. Can you just tell us as much as you can -- I know you didn't -- avoided it earlier -- how many U.S. forces were involved in this final operation? And also, can you give us anything -- a broader picture about the negotiations, in terms of were there initial demands made?
ADM. FOX: I don't have specifics on the initial demands. It was clear that the pirates wanted to get the yacht to Somalia. It was very clear that they wanted to make -- you know, to bring the hostages into Somali territorial waters, if nothing else. And so I don't have any other information of the demands of the pirates, other than the fact that they were -- they were tracking consistently from the point near Masirah Island -- I mean, you know, over there towards Oman when the vessel was pirated, and they were making a southwesterly flow towards Somalia.
COL. LAPAN: And --
Q: I'd like to follow up, Admiral -- oh, I'm sorry.
COL. LAPAN: Just -- and anything you can give us about the number of U.S. forces involved in the final part of this operation.
ADM. FOX: [USS] Leyte Gulf, USS Sterett and [USS] Enterprise were the three U.S. vessels that were closest to the incident at the time this morning that this went down.
Q: Yeah, if I could -- if I could follow up, Admiral, did at any time the U.S. negotiators make it clear to the pirates that they would not be permitted to go ashore in Somalia? And during the course of the negotiations, was there any indication of division or conflict among the pirates themselves about what to do with these hostages?
ADM. FOX: You know, those are details of the negotiation that I quite honestly don't have in terms of the interactions between the negotiators and the pirates and the way that those were characterized. That's just detail that I don't have. I'm sorry.
COL. LAPAN: Go ahead.
Q: Thank you. Shaun Tandon with AFP. On a different note, I was wondering if you could say a little bit about the victims, if you can identify all four of them by name and just say, were you in contact with their families throughout this?
ADM. FOX: Stand by for just one moment.
First of all, the victims' families and next of kin have been notified. The Americans that were on the yacht were Scott Adam, his wife Jean, of Marina del Rey, California; and then the other two Americans were Phyllis Mackay and Bob Riggle, both of Seattle, Washington. The owner of the yacht was Scott Adam and his wife Jean.
COL. LAPAN: Tony.
Q: Sir, Tony Capaccio again with Bloomberg. I had a couple quick questions on whether Americans are going to be shocked -- or will be shocked by these killings today -- but how many -- roughly how many people from other nationalities have been killed by pirates over the last year or two, to put this in perspective?
ADM. FOX: Let me think for just one second and I'll give you an answer.
Q: In this calendar year, in the last year.
ADM. FOX: In calendar year , there have been less than 10 fatalities associated with pirate activity in this region, not all in one incident.
Q: What about in 2010.
ADM. FOX: You know, I'm going to have to -- I'm going to have to pull a string to see how much -- in terms of how many people in 2010 were -- how many fatalities. We can get that information for you, but I don't have it at my fingertips right now.
[Update: U.S. Naval Forces Central Command states that to date in 2011, two people have died during piracy actions in their area of responsibility. In 2010, less than 10 people died during piracy actions. Data regarding nationality is released by individual countries.]
Q: Did a U.S. soldier or a Special Operations soldier actually kill the pirate with a knife in a knife fight?
ADM. FOX: A pirate was killed by a Special Operations Force member with a knife on the vessel. While they were clearing, they were in close combat. They were clearing the interior of the vessel.
Q: (Off mic) -- the two pirates who had been aboard the Sterett, are they also in U.S. custody along with the other 15? And secondly, I know that in the past there's been legal uncertainty about what kind of crimes you might be able to bring against pirates. In this particular case, is this being investigated as an act of murder of American citizens?
ADM. FOX: I'll leave the way that the characterization of the -- of the investigation to lawyers and to the FBI. These are American citizens. There are four dead American citizens that died as the result of pirate activity on their yacht. And so -- and the answer to your question of all of the 15 pirates are now being held together. And they're both -- they're all on a -- on a U.S. warship right now. And as I said, we will be going through the due diligence process here of taking all the appropriate steps to take them to justice.
Q: It was 15 total or it was 15 and then two more from the Sterett, so 17 total?
ADM. FOX: There were -- there were 19 total pirates on the sailboat. Two came off the Sterett, leaving 17. And then there were four dead.
COL. LAPAN: Charlie.
Q: Charlie Keyes, CNN. Sir, talking to a friend yesterday of Scott and Jean Adam, he described how this was a life-long dream of theirs to sail around the world. He said that they were aware of the risks.
What do you say to other Americans contemplating such an adventure?
ADM. FOX: Well, I think it's prudent to listen to the warnings of the international maritime organizations that talk about the dangers of this area. You know, you've got a -- there's a huge volume of maritime activity that goes on around here. And we have seen a growing -- a growing problem here in terms of the pirate activity off of the coast of Somalia. It originally was just in the Gulf of Aden. We've done a pretty good job of setting up an internationally recommended transit corridor for merchant ships that we patrol very carefully routinely.
And so pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden has actually gone down. But what's happened is because of a relatively less than -- less-than-normal strength monsoon season for the last few months and then also because of this mother ship activity, the pirates have been able to go for long distances out to sea, up to 1,3(00), 1,400 nautical miles away from Somalia. So there's pirate activity that's gone all the way up into the North Arabian Sea, off of the coast of India, down to Madagascar and so forth.
The warnings are issued to mariners about where pirate activity goes on. There are real-time warnings that we put out. And so there's a due diligence piece in terms of going to sea and operating and taking heed of all of the warnings and so forth.
Our job, of course, is to maintain free movement of innocent passage on the sea. And so the scope of the distances that are involved here -- the entire East Coast of the United States east of the Mississippi could fit into the Somali Basin/Indian Ocean area. I mean, we're talking 1,3(00), 1,400 nautical -- 1,500 nautical miles. And so it's a vast, vast area.
We currently have 34 vessels, warships, that are patrolling in this area, under 15 different flags, as we speak. And that number will vary. There's an EU [European Union] counter piracy task force, there's a NATO counter piracy task force, and then I'm in command of a counter piracy task force. We each take -- we work well together and cooperate and share our resources and our information. But even with the vast distances that are involved here, you know, there's a lot -- there's a lot of places where we are not.
Q: What role did UAVs play in helping track the Quest? And in general, what role are they playing to cover these vast distances?
ADM. FOX: As we track this particular instance, we devoted UAV assets from various places in this region to give us information about the movement, and then that of course once we got our vessels on site there, then we also had our own organic surveillance as well.
Q: Were those the ScanEagles you used?
ADM. FOX: I don't think -- I don't think we used any ScanEagles in this particular case. But that would be -- I don't think so.
COL. LAPAN: David and Justin and Luis, and we'll wrap it up.
Q: Dave Martin with CBS. Was there a specific warning out about the -- that covered the area in which the yacht was taken?
ADM. FOX: Yes. Yes, there were explicit warnings to mariners about the regions, the dangers and the pirate activity in this area.
COL. LAPAN: Justin.
Q: Just to be clear -- and Mik may have asked you about this, but before the shootings took place, during the negotiation process, was there ever a cash ransom offered to the pirates?
ADM. FOX: I -- you know, I can't tell you what went on between negotiators and the pirates. And I can't comment on that because I don't have any information on it.
COL. LAPAN: Luis, last one.
Q: Admiral, again, going back to the RPG that was fired at the Sterett, was that when the Sterett arrived? Was it after the two pirates were on board? What was the timeline between the firing of the RPG and the shots that you heard on board the yacht?
ADM. FOX: The way the report I read described it was, there was an RPG fired at Sterett. It missed. The Sterett was about 600 yards away. And after the RPG was fired, there was gunfire -- the sound of gunfire coming from the yacht, but near -- not simultaneous but sequential. An RPG fired, followed almost immediately by small-arms fire.
COL. LAPAN: All right, Admiral. Thank you very much for your time and the information you've provided to us. I'm sure we'll be in touch with you PAO for any follow-up questions.
ADM. FOX: Thank you very much.