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Piracy raises pressure for new international tack on Somalia

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Who are the pirates – and can they be reined in?

Piracy has plagued the Somali coasts for generations, but only became a sophisticated criminal enterprise in recent years, when profit-minded militia leaders teamed up with coastal fishermen to attack the many commercial ships passing through the Gulf of Aden on their way to and from the Suez Canal.

Since commercial ships, such as the Saudi-owned oil-tanker Sirius Star, are relatively unprotected, piracy on the high seas is an attractive business in a country with few business opportunities.

Recent brazen attacks – including the capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, carrying $100 million worth of oil, one-quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production – have prompted some security experts to question whether Somali Islamist groups, or even foreign terrorist groups, might be using piracy to fund their military ambitions.

While the pirates have become more sophisticated, their ties to Somalia's Islamists are tenuous at best. Their bases are in the quasi-autonomous Puntland region – far from the Islamist-controlled south, where courts have recently sentenced pirate crews to 20 years in jail.

"Nomadic peoples have mastered the idea of survival, and even now, with a huge number of patrols, pirates can reasonably think they have nothing to lose," says Mr. Jhazbhay. Piracy can be controlled only if Somalia is stable and has an effective government, he adds. "When the Islamists were in power for six months, the message went out, piracy will not be tolerated."

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