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Oil capture spotlights Somali pirates' reach

A supertanker hijacking helped boost the price of oil early this week.

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"I swear it's not the Islamists, and if anything, it's the Transitional Federal Government, because if you're not getting what you ask for from the international community, you'll go and nick it some other way," says Mr. Cornwell.

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This hijacking does serve as a warning, particularly since the Sirius Star was nowhere near the usual piracy areas, and was planning to take the longer safer route around the southern tip of Africa.

"The question is, what if they had taken a ship of [liquid natural gas]?" says Cornwell. "Then you're really looking at a possible terrorist threat. If they blow that up off a harbor, you'll flatten the place. People are talking about 50 Hiroshimas."

Mustafa Alani, director of the Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai-based think tank, said in a phone interview that his center has been working since the beginning of the year on a report about piracy, which is due out within weeks.

Their research so far, he says, has found "no evidence" of any connection between the pirates, who are mostly Somalis, and any terrorist or political organization. "We found no evidence of any terrorist group helping" the pirates, Mr. Alani says.

Alani says that there is a part of Somalia – Puntland – where the pirates operate from and that the leader of that area is "taxing those pirates." The leader of Puntland denies any involvement with the pirates, Alani says, but adds: "You can't do these activities without political protection."

Several ships hijacked previously off the Somali coast – including a Ukrainian freighter carrying 33 former Soviet T-72 tanks bound for Kenya – remain in the Somali port of Eyl under pirate control. While many hijacked ships have been released peacefully after a payment of ransom, a few have been taken back by force by international warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden. Given the size of the ship, the value of the cargo, and the closeness to port, such a use of force in the case of the Sirius Star is deemed unlikely.

While security experts say piracy has gotten more sophisticated in recent years, they do not believe that pirates are anything more than high-rolling criminals with an eye for making easy cash.

Links to global terrorist groups have yet to be made, but they're also not hard to imagine.

"It should be emphasized that to date, there is no firm evidence of this happening," says a report published last month by Chatham House, which conducts research on public policy and international affairs and is based in London. "However, in a region that saw the attacks on the USS Cole, seaborne terrorism needs to be taken very seriously."