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U.S. Lawmaker Calls for Tougher Action Against Pirates as Threat Escalates

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July 15, 2009: Suspected Somali pirates appear behind bars of a court in Yemen's southern port city of Aden. Worldwide piracy figures have reached a five-year low, according to the International Maritime Bureau. (Reuters)

Pirate attacks quadrupled in the first three months of this year, as compared to the same time last year, several piracy experts said, and there have been four attacks in the last few days, prompting calls for Western powers to take a tougher stand against the threat.

The most recent attacks were unsuccessful, but they shows the pirates still pose a serious threat despite improved patrols in the Gulf of Yemen.

Pirates are now using hijacked “motherships” to do their dirty work, the European Union Naval Force in Somalia said. This makes them more powerful in two ways: They can travel much farther out to sea, to areas where seamen used to feel safe, and they do their hijacking with hostages on board —human shields—which makes international navies reluctant to use fire.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., just returned from a fact-finding trip to the Horn of Africa. He thinks the U.S. Navy should put a total blockade on pirate ports.

“We should recall our Jeffersonian past and blockade main pirate port locations," he said. "That means they will not be able to meet their payrolls, and the number operatives and expeditions leaving Somalia will be reduced. And once you put a U.S. frigate or a naval destroyer off a pirate anchorage, with comprehensive rules of engagement to engage and sink pirate controlled vessels you’ll see a lot less piracy.”

Kirk claims the cost of piracy to the world economy is $12 billion a year—in terms of ransoms paid and the cost of policing the waters. He says the disruption to energy supply is significant, and it translates into higher oil prices at the pump. Furthermore, piracy funds the terrorist group Al Shabaab, based in Somalia.

Cutting off piracy will aid in the fight against terrorism, Kirk argued.

“If we collapse Al Shabaab entirely, we accomplish two critical objectives. One, wiping out the largest terror training camps on Earth, and two, ending this scourge of piracy, which now causes gas prices to go higher, funds terror.”

Piracy expert J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, claims that with Yemen on the verge of collapse, the situation becomes more dire.

“The pirates already operate out of several Yemeni ports, the motherships go there to be refueled, to resupply and then head out because they know that the Somali coasts are being watched," Pham said. "And now, as the Yemeni government loses control, there is more scope for operation with the pirates, and we also know that the pirates have been serving as intermediaries between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization operating in Somalia, so we expect an increase in the traffic of men, material and terrorists between the two countries.”

Pham thinks international bodies also need to target the money.

“There are people who are literally investing in piracy as a business opportunity, and we have to go after that money -- both stopping the ransoms, because that cuts off incentive to be a pirate, and stopping the investors who invest in Somali piracy," Pham said. "We’re talking about big businessmen and others who, through a number of Islamic banking institutions, funnel money to finance piracy operations and reap tremendous rewards when these ransoms are paid.”

Paddy O’Kennedy, wing commander and spokesman for the EU Naval Force in Somalia, explains another problem: As many as 90 percent of the suspected pirates picked up at sea are simply disarmed and sent back to Somalia, because few courts around the world are interested in trying any suspects not caught actually hijacking a ship.

EU Naval Force in Somalia does not think a blockade of Somali ports will necessarily deter pirates, suggesting the pirates will simply skirt the blockades and deploy from other points. Rather Somalis, who value family life, might be deterred if more pirates were thrown in prison.

All pirate watchers agree that the scourge of piracy will continue as long as Somalia lacks a stable government. In the meantime, debate continues about how best to prevail in this deadly cat-and-mouse game at sea.

Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in the London bureau. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @kellogglondon