STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Pirates grabbed the world's attention a few days ago when they grabbed an oil tanker that is larger than an aircraft carrier, but that is only one recent attack. They've attacked at least 10 ships near the Horn of Africa in the past two weeks, and this has the U.S. Navy's attention. NPR Pentagon correspondent JJ Sutherland spoke to the commander of the 5th Fleet to find out what the Navy can and cannot do to stop them.
JJ SUTHERLAND: Vice Admiral Bill Gortney commands one of the most powerful conglomerations of ships in the world. Its dozens of warships support the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also commands the Combined Maritime Forces, a kind of international navy. But against pirates, it's not enough.
Vice Admiral BILL GORTNEY (Commander, 5th Fleet, U.S. Navy; Commander, Combined Maritime Forces): We can't be everywhere.
SUTHERLAND: The Somali pirates operate in an area covering more than a million square miles of ocean.
Vice Admiral GORTNEY: Where we are not is where you have these maritime criminals, that we call pirates, will eventually find a merchant ship that is taking no action, or ineffective actions, to prevent pirates from getting onboard their vessels.
SUTHERLAND: The admiral says the shipping companies have to take responsibility for their own ships. He says they're taking some measures - increasing their speed, making sure their ladders are up, posting lookouts. But he says that's not enough.
Vice Admiral GORTNEY: What I am pushing, what we are pushing with the shipping industry is they need to put on security detachments on these vessels.
SUTHERLAND: 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 Navy is not around that they turn rogue. And there's a huge incentive to do so. At least 18 vessels are now being held for ransom, and that ransom is usually paid. Usually it runs in the millions of dollars. Not bad money for a Somali fisherman.
Vice Admiral GORTNEY: 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.
SUTHERLAND: And that's another problem. Some pirates have been taken prisoner, but it's 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's no rule of law. The money the pirates bring in is making the situation in Somalia even worse than it already is. Roger Middleton with the British think tank Chatham House says the pirate money corrupts the whole society. Everybody has to be paid off.
Mr. ROGER MIDDLETON (Consultant Researcher, Chatham House): Now 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 in groups like al-Shabab.
SUTHERLAND: Al-Shabab is a Somali Islamic insurgent group fighting what little government there is in that country. Admiral Gortney says they haven't seen a link between piracy and terrorism yet.
Vice Admiral GORTNEY: That said, we know al-Qaeda 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.
SUTHERLAND: Admiral Gortney says a real solution of piracy won't be found out in the oceans, but in Somalia itself.
Vice Admiral GORTNEY: The solution is on the beach. It is preventing the conditions that breed pirates.
SUTHERLAND: A job a bit big for the 5th Fleet. JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Washington.
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