Pirates got the world's attention a few days ago when they seized a Saudi oil tanker three times the size of an aircraft carrier. But that's just one of at least 10 ships attacked near the Horn of Africa in the past two weeks.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, says even one of the most powerful conglomerations of ships in the world isn't enough to combat the pirates.
"We can't be everywhere," Gortney says.
Gortney's 5th Fleet has dozens of warships that support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also commands the Combined Maritime Forces, a kind of international navy. But the Somali pirates operate in an area covering more than 1 million square miles of ocean.
"Where we are not is where you have these maritime criminals that we call pirates, [who] will eventually find a merchant ship that is taking no action, or ineffective actions, to prevent pirates from getting onboard their vessels," he says.
The admiral says the shipping companies have to take responsibility for their own ships. He says they are taking some measures — increasing their speed, making sure their ladders are up, posting lookouts. But that's not enough, Gortney says.
"What I am pushing, what we are pushing with the shipping industry, is that they need to put security detachments on these vessels," he says.
For its part, the Navy does patrol the waters and has tried to set up safe sea lanes. But spotting the pirates isn't easy. It's not like they fly the Jolly Roger; when they're in sight, they act just like fishermen. It's only when the navies aren't around that they turn rogue.
And there is a huge incentive to do so. At least 18 vessels are now being held for ransom. That ransom most often is paid, usually in the millions of dollars — not bad money for a Somali fisherman.
"There is no reason not to be a pirate. The vessel I'm trying to pirate, they're not going to shoot at me. I'm going to get my money. If I get arrested — they won't arrest me, because there's no place to try me," Gortney says.
That's another problem. Some pirates have been taken prisoner, but it is only recently that anyone has agreed to try them. Kenya is going to put some pirates captured by the British on trial, but no one knows how that case will turn out. Most of the time, pirates are just released. Somalia is essentially ungoverned, so there is no rule of law.
The money the pirates bring in is making the situation in Somalia even worse than it already is. Roger Middleton of Chatham House, a British think tank, says the pirate money corrupts the whole society. Everybody has to be paid off.
"That may be people involved with the government, the transitional federal government, with the administration in Puntland, which is in the northeast of Somalia, but it also involves opposition figures — people perhaps who are involved with groups like al-Shabab," Middleton says.
Al-Shabab is a Somali Islamist insurgent group fighting what little government there is in that country.
Gortney says they haven't seen a link between piracy and terrorism — yet. "That said, we know al-Qaida is going into Somalia in a big way, and there's so much money involved, that where there's that much money, eventually terrorism is found."
A real solution to piracy won't be found out on the oceans, but in Somalia itself, he says.
"The solution is on the beach. It is preventing the conditions that breed pirates," he says — a job that's a bit big for the 5th Fleet.