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Oil capture spotlights Somali pirates' reach

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Pirate gangs have certainly become more sophisticated, operating large "mother ships," often former Russian trawlers, which follow their targeted ship with GPS devices. When they are close enough, they offload smaller dinghies or speedboats that move in for the capture.

"They just come up to the stern, throw up their hook and ladder, and once you are on board, the ship is yours, because no one is going to mess with a man with an RPG [rocket propelled grenade launcher]," says Richard Cornwell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "Once [they're on board], it's over in 10 to 15 minutes. Unless you have a warship in the immediate area, and crucially, with a helicopter, you've got no chance of stopping them."

The attack of the Saudi oil tanker had occurred closer to Islamist bases in southern Somalia than to northern pirate bases, but most Somali experts say they haven't seen concrete evidence of Islamists cooperating with pirates.

After all, during the Islamists' brief six-month reign last year, piracy in Somalia was banned, and no pirate attacks occurred.

Yet the sheer size of the pirates' haul has shaken the maritime world and shown that Somalia's instability has spread far from its borders.

"I swear it's not the Islamists, and if anything, it's the Transitional Federal Government, because if you're not getting what you ask for from the international community, you'll go and nick it some other way," says Mr. Cornwell.

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