It's got some competition, but Somalia may well be the world's most lawless country. It's been functioning, barely, for years without a central government. And that lawlessness extends into the open sea. Somali pirates have carried out scores of attacks on vessels - everything from merchant ships to a French luxury yacht - near key shipping routes in the Indian Ocean. American war ships patrolling the region as well as ships from other nations have at times needed to intervene. It's become such a problem that the U.N. Security Council is considering action to stop it.

I'm joined by Peter Lehr, an expert on sea piracy and terrorism who lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Good morning.

Professor PETER LEHR (Terrorism, University of St. Andrews): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: By one count there've been nearly 50 of these attacks on vessels off Africa's east coast. That would be Somalia's coast. Who exactly are these pirates?

Mr. LEHR: Well, the pirates actually range from traditional fishermen or more sophisticated groups calling themselves Somali marines, Somali navy, or a national volunteer coast guard of Somalia.

Actually, Somali fishermen nowadays are out-muscled and overwhelmed by industrial high sea trawling fleets coming from countries like Spain, France, Japan, Korea or Taiwan. So from their point of view what they do is maritime self-defense. They're protecting their own waters.

MONTAGNE: So they wouldn't call themselves pirates?

Mr. LEHR: Of course not. The same as terrorists would not call them terrorists, because that simply is a negative flavor that you want to avoid.

MONTAGNE: How, though, in this one might say day and age do they actually attack or commandeer ships?

Mr. LEHR: Well, you see, they started on a very low level in the '90s. They attacked other fisher vessels at knifepoint. The invested the spoils of these ventures into AK-47 assault rifles, into rocket-propelled grenade launchers, global positioning systems, navigation gear, fast boats. And nowadays, after learning their trades for a decade now, they are actually a specialist in their trade, second to none.

MONTAGNE: They're not, though, the only pirates out there on the high seas. What accounts for piracy in other areas such as - there's the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia. There's also the South China Sea - pirates down there.

Mr. LEHR: And you should also name the coast off Nigeria - the Niger Delta -where pirates attack oil platforms. But Somalia's actually the worst problem we have at the moment. So I would call the coast of Somalia the pirates' new paradise.

MONTAGNE: Now, this, of course, isn't any kind of a joke. Piracy is estimated to cost commercial shipping billions of dollars a year.

Mr. LEHR: That's correct. Yes.

MONTAGNE: And, as I just mentioned, the U.N. Security council is considering a resolution. It would allow war ships from countries such as the U.S. to chase these vessels into the territorial waters of nations where the pirates take refuge. Do you think this would work? Do you think it'll be effective?

Mr. LEHR: Well, to a certain degree. I mean, it's basically attacking the symptoms but ignoring the disease. It will help a little, but it will not make piracy go away. I know that the pirates they're actually quite cool when it comes to Western intervention. They know that the waters are simply too much(ph).

You see, Somalia's a coastline of 3,300 kilometers, and using Western ships -warships - wouldn't really work, because that's fighting a force that's routinely underground.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. LEHR: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Peter Lehr is an expert on sea piracy and terrorism who lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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