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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Four Americans on a global sailing trip were shot to death this week after they were captured by Somali pirates. The killings represent a new level of violence in what's become a thriving enterprise off the coast of Africa. Fifteen pirates are now in custody. Many of them are headed to the U.S. to face criminal charges, and that may be the government's worst option to fight the piracy problem. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

JOHNSON: Until this week, the U.S. considered Somali pirates a nuisance. International navies catch and release hundreds of pirates off the African coast every year, and no one worries too much about it. Then the piracy problem turned deadly.

Nikolas Gvosdev teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. He told NPR that the killings on the high sea might be a 9/11 moment, when passengers and airlines decided they had to fight back.

Mr. NIKOLAS GVOSDEV (National Security Studies, U.S. Naval War College): The question is whether or not we've reached that tipping point in the waters off of Somalia, where shipping companies and governments and publics have reached that 9/11 moment, where they say we can't tolerate this anymore; this isn't just simply a price of doing business, that you accept some extra insurance payments and the cost of ransoms are spread out throughout the system, but something actually has to be done.

JOHNSON: What has to be done is the subject of a big review by the Obama administration - and debate in the military and legal communities. Piracy was the first internationally recognized crime. Governments worked together to stamp it out more than a century ago only to see it return in full force, says lawyer David Rivkin.

Mr. DAVID RIVKIN (International Litigation Lawyer): We're talking about something that's come back. It's like a disease that's been virtually eradicated, that sprung back and is just spreading like wildfire.

JOHNSON: Rivkin says international cooperation is the solution. He's called on the U.N. Security Council to create a special tribunal to handle pirates. And he wants the U.S. and Europe to give more financial support and training to African countries to help them deal with the problem.

Professor EUGENE KONTOROVICH (Law, Northwestern University): I don't see a serious role for the U.N. here.

JOHNSON: That's Eugene Kontorovich. He teaches international law. And he says governments all over the world have a common refrain when it comes to pirates.

Prof. KONTOROVICH: The real problem is nobody wants these pirates hanging out in their jails, later to be released to gain asylum in their cities.

JOHNSON: In other words, not in my backyard. Kontorovich says the U.S. Congress and other governments need to change the law to make it easier to prosecute pirates. He says poor Somali fishermen often carry big guns such as AK-47s to protect themselves.

Prof. KONTOROVICH: But if you have some kind of combination of rifles, RPGs, grappling hooks, boarding ladders and dollar counting machines, there we might be presumed that you are engaged in attempted piracy.

JOHNSON: Countries followed a similar approach in the drug wars. For instance, they made it a crime to have mini-submarines. The law now assumes that if you have a submersible, you're using it to carry drugs. But criminal prosecution has some drawbacks. It's expensive and it can take a long time.

Last year, a jury in Virginia convicted five Somali pirates - the first jury verdict in a piracy case in almost 200 years. Another pirate sent to New York pleaded guilty.

Attorney General Eric Holder is deciding where to send the pirates involved in the latest incident. He'll make an announcement once the men land on U.S. soil. Gvosdev, who teaches at the Naval War College, says the real solution to the pirate problem is not on the high seas but on land.

Mr. GVOSDEV: This is a profitable business. It is essentially the main driver for revenue in Somalia. It trickles down not only from the businessmen who sponsor pirate attacks through to the pirates through to a whole variety of villagers and people who provide services.

JOHNSON: He says the U.S. might want to consider economic incentives and social programs, such as starting a coast guard that would pay unemployed Somalis to police the waters themselves.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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