CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story, including in today's print edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly identified as Army Rangers the U.S. soldiers who were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu during a failed U.S. intervention in the 1990s.
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."
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 American soldiers 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."