By hijacking a Saudi oil tanker – the largest ship ever taken – Somali pirates this week may have guaranteed their biggest ever haul of ransom.
The capture of the Sirius Star, which can carry more than one-fourth of Saudi Arabia's daily oil output, helped send prices above $58 a barrel. And the fact that it was nabbed 450 miles off Kenya's coast is a sign of growing sophistication and reach by the pirates, who have tended to stay closer to the Gulf of Aden, a pinch point for sea traffic routed through the Suez Canal.
The news also raises concern from some Western analysts that the pirates' spoils could help fund a growing Islamist insurgency in Somalia, although there is little evidence of that so far.
"What this attack represents is a fundamental shift in the pirates' ability to carry out attacks," said Lt.
Somali pirates also hijacked a 26,000-ton Iranian cargo carrier on Tuesday, according to the US Navy.
Pirate gangs have certainly become more sophisticated, operating large "mother ships," often former Russian trawlers, which follow their targeted ship with GPS devices. When they are close enough, they offload smaller dinghies or speedboats that move in for the capture.
"They just come up to the stern, throw up their hook and ladder, and once you are on board, the ship is yours, because no one is going to mess with a man with an RPG [rocket propelled grenade launcher]," says Richard Cornwell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "Once [they're on board], it's over in 10 to 15 minutes. Unless you have a warship in the immediate area, and crucially, with a helicopter, you've got no chance of stopping them."
The attack of the Saudi oil tanker had occurred closer to Islamist bases in southern Somalia than to northern pirate bases, but most Somali experts say they haven't seen concrete evidence of Islamists cooperating with pirates.
After all, during the Islamists' brief six-month reign last year, piracy in Somalia was banned, and no pirate attacks occurred.
Yet the sheer size of the pirates' haul has shaken the maritime world and shown that Somalia's instability has spread far from its borders.
"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.
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."
But even if piracy has yet to turn into a full-blown moneymaking operation for global terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, it has grown into a serious business. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has more than doubled this year, with 60 ships hijacked, according to the Chatham House report. And profits are up.
Ransoms that used to be in the tens of thousands of dollars a few years ago can now be a few million dollars. And this has been a good year for pirates: Total ransom payments for 2008 could top $30 million, the report says.
"Shipping firms, and sometimes governments, are prepared to pay these sums since they are relatively small compared with the value of a ship, let alone the life of crew members," the report says.
The International Maritime Organization, a "UN of the seas" operates in an area that is more than 1.1 million square miles, with ships from countries like Russia, the US, and other NATO countries patrolling these areas.
That presence alone has helped to reduce the number of successful pirate attacks, from 53 percent in August to 31 percent in October, according to the US Navy. American defense officials familiar with the issue say it's hard to protect tankers and other ships from the skiffs.
Some skiffs are legitimate, and the ones with ill intent move so fast it is hard to ward them off before they attack. And the pirates are increasingly operating in what navies refer to as "blue water" – far offshore – by using other, larger boats from which the skiffs are launched to attack boats at sea.
The Sirius Star, the largest ship ever to be hijacked, was also the farthest from shore, some 450 miles off the coast of Kenya.
American officials would like to prevent more attacks, but are emphatic in their view that it is an international problem in need of an international solution.
Simply remanding the hijackers to their native country – Somalia, which lacks any formal criminal justice system – would be pointless, American defense officials say.
That leaves few options.
"There is no international stomach for us to go back 200 years and bind the hands and feet of these pirates and send them into the briny deep," says one American Navy official.