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Pirates Commandeer Busy Shipping Lane

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Pirates Commandeer Busy Shipping Lane

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Pirates Commandeer Busy Shipping Lane

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. India's navy says one of its warships off the coast of Somalia battled pirates and destroyed one of their so-called mother ships, a supply vessel that helps the pirates operate in open water. That attack occurred yesterday, the same day that Somali pirates hijacked two more ships. One of them was a Thai vessel. One was an Iranian cargo carrier. And the pirates seem to keep getting more and more brazen. On Saturday, of course, they seized a supertanker carrying a huge load of Saudi oil, despite the patrols of U.S. and NATO ships, which is a graphic illustration of a theory put forward by Nikolas Gvosdev. He teaches national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, and he's with us. Good morning, sir.

Dr. NIKOLAS GVOSDEV (Professor of National Security Decision Making, U.S. Naval War College): Good morning.

INSKEEP: You, in a quite timely fashion, have argued that piracy has now evolved into a threat to the world's energy security.

Dr. GVOSDEV: Yes. This of course is my own personal opinion. It's not an institutional one. But you have 30 percent of the world's oil supply transiting within range of Somali pirates. Certainly, after seizing the supertanker off of the coast of Kenya, away from the Gulf of Aden, it shows that they can operate far from shore. And what this potentially risks is not only attacks on ships, but whether or not at some point a terrorist group might try to do a copycat attack, not for profit, but of course to disrupt the world's energy supplies and to try to create a bit more of the financial panic that could be furthering their own aims.

INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me for just trying to understand the basics here. I realize that the sea is a big place and that there are many ships on it, but you would think there aren't that many supertankers. Isn't it possible to keep them under guard in some fashion?

Dr. GVOSDEV: It may be. The problem here, of course, is that you have a pretty wide amount of space. This would require much greater deployments than at present the U.S., NATO, other powers have been willing to do. If you remember, in the '80s, it took a lot of naval resources just to safeguard tankers in the Persian Gulf, which isn't exactly a pretty wide space. You have 16,000 ships going through the Gulf of Aden into Suez - not just supertankers, of course - so there are a lot of targets out there.

And as we've seen, these pirate mother ships and their fishing vessels, there are more of them, and they're willing to go out and to wait for targets and to avoid the patrol areas. Because the Saudi ship was seized in an area that people thought was safe. It was not part of the patrol corridor where the U.S. Navy and the other navies were. And so they knew where the naval forces were, and they struck at a different shipping lane.

And I think this points to the fact that while you can have foreign navies present, unless you are able to build up more local capacity to deal with this issue, local fishermen are always going to have a bit of an edge. They know the area, they know the shipping lanes. After all, these pirates were fishermen ten years ago. So they are operating in their own natural habitat, as it were.

INSKEEP: Mr. Gvosdev, we've just got a few seconds left. But is it possible for tankers simply to avoid getting too close to the Somali coast, as they had, wherever they are in the world?

Dr. GVOSDEV: It is possible, but again the attack on Saturday is the route that the Norwegian ships and others have been now directed to take.

INSKEEP: This was the alternate route.

Dr. GVOSDEV: The alternate route. This is to bypass Suez and go around the tip of Africa. And of course what happened is, is when the Gulf of Aden got patrolled, we've seen these guys, these pirates, willing to go a bit further afield. So detouring helps, but it's not a long-term solution.

INSKEEP: And in just a couple more seconds, you think that military forces cannot deal with this?

Dr. GVOSDEV: Military forces are part of the solution. But the other parts of the solution are more of the local countries being drawn in, as they have been in East Asia, which has been a big factor in decreasing piracy in the Straits of Malacca.

INSKEEP: Right.

Dr. GVOSDEV: And finally you've got to deal with the conditions on the ground. If piracy is the biggest source of income right now in Somalia...

INSKEEP: Mr. Gvosdev, I've got to stop you right now. But thank you very much. I appreciate your help. Nikolas Gvosdev of the Naval War College.

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