Reporting from Norfolk, Va. — The moon was bright, the sea was calm, and the pirates easily spotted their prey — a large gray ship plodding through waves 576 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.
Three men jumped from a command boat into an open skiff and raced toward the target. They opened fire with AK-47 rifles as they neared the starboard side, hitting a mast and several life lines.
No one was hurt, and the April 1 incident normally might have drawn little notice. Somali sea bandits have attacked several hundred freighters, tankers and other merchant ships this year. They have successfully hijacked 40 vessels and their crews and held them for ransom.
But the target this time was the U.S. guided missile frigate Nicholas, disguised to resemble a cargo ship. Navy gunners fired back, and by dawn, commandos had captured five Somalis.
The result has been a riveting federal trial here this month. Navy officers gave a rare inside peek at counter-pirate operations, while the men accused of piracy testified emotionally — one appeared to weep on the stand — about their ordeals.
"It's a historic occasion," said Eugene Kontorovich, a maritime law expert at Northwestern University School of Law. "It's the first piracy trial in the United States in close to 200 years."
The five Somalis — scarecrow-thin men in their 20s who appeared even tinier in the baggy sport coats they wore to court — each faces 14 criminal charges and mandatory life in prison if convicted of piracy. The jury is expected to begin deliberations Monday.
Whatever the verdict, the trial has underscored the difficulties of combating Somali piracy in a U.S. court, especially if the men never boarded the ship. In a similar but separate case, another federal judge in Norfolk dismissed piracy charges against six other Somalis accused of firing at the U.S. Navy vessel Ashland, although they face other charges. Prosecutors are appealing.
The men captured by the Nicholas were flown to Norfolk, where the frigate is based, because authorities in Kenya, which agreed last year to prosecute pirates detained by foreign navies, refused to accept them. Days before the attack, Navy warships had released 11 other suspected Somali brigands after destroying their weapons.
Testifying last week, the five Somalis insisted they were fishing for sharks near shore when real pirates kidnapped them at gunpoint. Several nights later, they said, the pirates pushed them into the skiff, tossed in two rifles and ordered them to aim at a passing ship.
One defendant, Gabul Abdullahi Ali, said he knew so little about guns that when he fired the AK-47, the recoil knocked him into the water. Ali said the pirates beat him, and that Navy sailors did too.
"I was kicked, stomped on with boots," he said through an interpreter, wiping tears from his eyes.
Another defendant, Abdi Wali Dire, also admitted shooting in the melee. Like the others, he insisted they did not try to escape after the Navy shot back. "We were just sitting there," he said.
All five recanted confessions that a Navy investigator said they had given him shortly after their capture. One of the group, Abdi Mohammed Gurewardher, said the Navy interpreter threatened to feed him to the sharks if he didn't confess.
Prosecutors presented a starkly different version of events.
Navy officers said a P-3 Orion surveillance plane detected three suspected pirate boats — a so-called mother ship and two smaller attack skiffs — shortly after midnight on April 1, and alerted the Nicholas.
Cmdr. Erik Patton, the ship's executive officer, soon spotted a small white skiff speeding toward the warship. Through his night-vision scope, Patton saw two men with AK-47 rifles and another man holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
"He's got a grenade launcher! He's got a grenade launcher!" Patton recalled shouting. He said the attackers fired at least three bursts from their rifles, but Navy gunners fore and aft opened up with .50-caliber machine guns, and the skiff turned and sped away.
Navy rules of engagement barred the crew from shooting at a fleeing target. After a half-hour chase, Patton told the court, the men waved their arms in surrender. They already had tossed weapons and a boarding ladder into the sea.
A Navy drone, launched from the Seychelles, spotted the mother ship 20 miles away later that night. The Nicholas intercepted the supply-laden boat at daybreak and detained the two men aboard. The third boat was never found.
The five Somalis were stripped, blindfolded and given what the Navy calls "poopy suits," or survival coveralls. They were handcuffed to a rail under an awning for most of the next few days.
On April 4, Michael Knox, a special agent from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and an interpreter interrogated the men one by one, and then together. He did not record the sessions.