On the sweltering evening of April 12, 2009, as dusk deepened over the Indian Ocean, several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia, three shots rang out. All the bullets found their targets -- three Somali pirates in a small lifeboat bobbing on the darkening sea.
For the past five days the pirates had taken hostage Richard Phillips, the American captain of the Maersk Alabama container ship.
President Barack Obama had authorized the use of deadly force if Phillips' life was in danger.
Unbeknownst to the pirates, days earlier a contingent from SEAL Team 6 had parachuted at night into the ocean near the USS Bainbridge warship, which was shadowing the pirates in their boat. The SEALs had taken up position on the fantail of the Bainbridge and were carefully monitoring Phillips while he was in the custody of the pirates.
One of the pirates had just pointed his AK-47 at the American captain as if he were going to shoot him. That's when the SEAL team commander on the Bainbridge ordered his men to take out the pirates.
Three U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters fired simultaneously at the pirates from a distance of 30 yards in heaving seas at nightfall, killing them all.
Obama called Vice Adm. William "Bill" McRaven, the leader of Joint Special Operations Command and of the mission to rescue Phillips, to tell him, "Great job."
In the eyes of Hollywood at least, the American public can't get enough of these kinds of operations. "Captain Phillips," a movie starring Tom Hanks playing the rescued sea captain, will be in theaters on Friday.
The flawless rescue of Philips was the first time that Obama, only three months into his new job, was personally exposed to the capabilities of America's "Quiet Professionals," as they sometimes refer to themselves.
They are the secretive counterterrorism units of special operations, made up of units including the Navy's SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Delta Force, whose well-oiled skills Obama has come to rely upon increasingly with every passing year of his presidency.
This was underlined over the weekend in Africa when operators from Delta and SEAL Team 6 carried out raids in Libya and Somalia -- more than 2,000 miles apart -- targeting a longtime alleged member of al Qaeda in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and the leaders of one al Qaeda's affiliated groups in the Somali port of Barawe.
In Tripoli, Delta operators seized Abu Anas al-Libi, who is wanted for his alleged role performing surveillance on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, which was destroyed by an al Qaeda truck bomb in 1998, while in Barawe SEAL Team 6 operators went ashore to attack a house frequented by commanders of Al Shabaab, the group that launched the attack on the mall in Nairobi two weeks ago where at least 67 people were killed.
The Delta raid in Tripoli went off flawlessly, but the SEALs encountered heavy resistance in Barawe and the SEAL team retreated. Details of what exactly happened during the Somali operation are still murky.
The two raids over the weekend show that President Obama remains very comfortable deploying special operations forces in countries the United States is not at war with as a means to combat terrorist groups, just as he is comfortable with the use of CIA drones for the same purpose in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.
For the White House, part of the appeal of special operations and drones is that they do not, of course, consume anything like the blood and treasure that are expended on conventional military operations such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Indeed, the SEALS have had considerable experience working in and around Somalia in recent years. Six months after the rescue of Phillips, Obama's national security team authorized a mission to take out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a leader of al Qaeda in Africa.
Nabhan was killed by SEAL Team 6 in a helicopter raid on September 14, 2009, as he was driving south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The SEALs landed briefly to take Nabhan's body, and after they had confirmed his identity through DNA samples, he was buried at sea.
Home of SEAL Team 6
It is quite challenging to enter the SEALs, but an even greater challenge is to be selected for the SEAL's premier counterterrorism force, the innocuously named Naval Special Warfare Development Group based at Dam Neck, Virginia, near the bustling resort town of Virginia Beach.
It's known inside the military as "DevGru" and more popularly as "SEAL Team 6" and is an elite within the SEAL elite.
The men of DevGru, around 250 in total, are battle-hardened and are usually in their mid-30s.
DevGru is divided into squadrons that are named by color: Red, Blue and Gold are the assault squadrons, Grey handles vehicles and boats, and Black is the sniper team. These squadrons scout other SEAL teams, which number around 2,000 men, for those with the particular skills they need.
DevGru's base at Dam Neck does not announce itself. Behind the high wire fence that seals the SEALs off from the rest of the world is a large dog pound where the highly trained dogs that accompany the men on their missions live. There is a giant wall to sharpen climbing skills and a hangar full of exceptionally fast boats. Other hangars house experimental Mad Max-like dune buggies suitable for driving in the deserts of the Middle East and weapons rooms loaded with exotic firearms.