NORFOLK, Va. – Two Somali men pleaded guilty on Monday to piracy in the hijacking of a yacht that left all four Americans on board dead, while new details emerged about who fired at the hostages.
Burhan Abdirahman Yusuf and Jilani Abdiali face mandatory life sentences, but as part of a plea agreement they could serve less time and eventually be deported to Somalia.
The men are among 14 people from Somalia and one from Yemen facing charges related to the February hijacking of the yacht Quest. Three of those men have already pleaded guilty to piracy in plea deals, and all five face sentencing in August and September.
Two others are expected to make similar deals Tuesday. Whether any of the men who plead get less prison time may not be known until long after their sentencing hearings because the government wants their cooperation for any future charges in this and possibly other cases.
Abdiali told U.S. District Judge Mark Davis through a translator at a hearing Monday that he had never committed a crime in the past before becoming a pirate and would work tirelessly for the U.S. government.
"We hope the string of convictions in this and other cases help send a message to others that piracy against American vessels will not be tolerated," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement.
The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death several days after being taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years. Prosecutors said the men intended to bring the Americans to Somalia and hold them for ransom there. Pirates typically seek millions of dollars for hostages.
In a statement of facts Yusuf agreed to Monday, he said the 19 men who had taken control of the yacht would have split 65 percent of the ransom money among themselves and an interpreter. The other 35 percent would be given to a financier. In Abdiali's statement of facts, he said he saw that pirates were making a lot of money and had big houses and cars, so he spoke with a financier about joining an expedition that ultimately led him to board the American yacht.
Their plan to make money fell through when U.S. Navy warships began shadowing the Quest.
Yusuf said a man aboard the yacht named Ibrahim was in charge at the time of the shooting. According to Yusuf, Ibrahim told the Navy, "We are not going to stop, you try to stop us if you can." Other court records say it was Ibrahim — who is among four pirates who died aboard the boat — who gave the order to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at a Navy ship as a warning shot.
Yusuf said some of the other men on board said they were going to massacre the hostages in order to get the U.S. boats to retreat.
Before the shooting, five men were guarding the Americans with guns pointed at them, including two who later died.
Yusuf identified Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar as the men who survived the ordeal and who fired on the hostages.
When U.S. special forces scrambled onto the occupied vessel, they found the Americans and two of the pirates' bodies. Two other pirates died in the operation.
The original indictment against the 15 men says at least three of them shot the Americans, but it had not previously identified who pulled the trigger.
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