As the Sirius Star, the hijacked Saudi supertanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil, sits captive off the coast of Somalia, U.S. officials and piracy experts warn that its capture marks a turning point in Somali piracy that is escalating out of control.
To drive the point home, hijackers swarmed onto an Iranian cargo ship today, making it the seventh vessel hijacked off the Somalia coast in the last 12 days.
While November has a been banner month for Somali pirates, they have been busy all year. The International Maritime Bureau counts 93 ships attacked this year and 37 of them captured successfully.
At least 14 ships are currently being held hostage by pirates, including the Ukranian ship MV Faina that was loaded with Russian tanks, rocket propelled grenades and tons of ammunition when it was seized by Somali pirates in September.
The MV Faini and the Sirius Star are now anchored near each other in well-known pirate enclaves along the Somali coast while ransom negotiations proceed.
But the hijacking of the Sirius Star was shocking because of its size, and the scope of the operation.
The vessel is the largest ship ever hijacked, roughly the size of a U.S. aircraft carrier, and its booty of oil is worth an estimated $100 million.
Even more alarming is where the attack occurred -- 450 nautical miles off the East African coast and 200 miles farther south than any of the earlier hijackings. That has led experts to believe that the pirates have extended their reach by working from larger "mother ships."
"It's a game changer," a senior U.S. defense official told ABC News.
Searching for the Mother Ship
The Navy's aware of a mother ship that operates off the Gulf of Aden, but since this attack happened significantly south of there, investigators are trying to figure out how it was carried out. They assume it's another mother ship, but so far, they have not found it.
"It absolutely marks a fundamental shift in the pirates' ability to conduct operations," Lt. Nathan Christensen, the spokesman for the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, told ABC News. The operation shows the pirates are using more sophisticated technologies like GPS and are becoming more organized, he said.
"The attack on the tanker definitely represents an increased capability," Christensen said.
The threat from piracy has prompted a tidal shift in the shipping industry with the world's navies trying to establish a safe corridor, shipping companies facing rising costs in protection and evasion, and at least one seagoing-guns-for-hire company bulking up.
Blackwater Worldwide, which made a name for itself providing security in Iraq, has outfitted a ship with a helicopter pad and a well-armed crew to escort ships through pirate-infested waters.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrell said the company has been contacted by 67 shipping and insurance companies, but no contracts have been signed.
Since August the Combined Maritime Force, which includes the Fifth Fleet along with the United Kingdom, France and Spain, has stepped up its patrolling of the area, which includes the Gulf of Aden.
The CMF has created an international traffic corridor, a route it recommends that vessels, use where there will be additional protection. Christensen said that since the corridor has existed, the number of attacks has gone down 20 percent.
The CMF has also been working with shipping companies on self-defense, ranging from employing armed private security personnel to equipping the vessel with fire hoses on deck to spray the pirates as they try to board the ship.
Some Shippers to Avoid the Area
Shipping companies that don't follow these guidelines do so at their own peril, said Christensen. Out of the last 15 attacks, 10 have not followed self-protection guidelines or chose not to travel through the protected corridor.
The area of the pirate attacks includes the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off the coasts of Somalia and Kenya. It equals 1.1 million square miles, which is four times the size of Texas.
"We have three dozen warships, but we can't be everywhere at once," said Christensen.
Some shipping companies could just decide to avoid the area altogether.
Odfjells SE, a Norwegian shipping company, announced Monday that its new routes would go around Africa completely, causing additional cost and around a three-week delay for shipments to get to their destinations.
"The rerouting will entail extra sailing days and later cargo deliveries. This will incur significant extra cost, but we expect our customers' support and contribution," said Odfjell SE president Terje Storeng.
Philippe de Pontet, a Middle East and Africa expert with the Eurasia Group, said that the decision was "a big signal in the shipping industry" and warned that it could cause a sharp increase in insurance fees if other companies follow suit.
Somali Pirates Living the High Life
But higher insurance fees would still cost less than the additional security, loss of productivity, manpower and ransom being paid out by companies when their ships are captured.
The British think-tank Chatham House released a report last month that estimated that more than $30 million in ransom money had been paid to pirates, at an average of about $2 million per ship. The money has turned piracy, which started more than a decade ago by Somali fishermen as a way to protect their trade from illegal fishing by other nationals, into big business.
Now the small fishing villages and towns on the coast are flush with cash. There are reports of young men in "pirate gangs" living the high-life in one of the poorest regions of Somalia. The resident of one town told the BBC that the pirates "wed the most beautiful girls. They are building big houses, they have new cars, new guns."
All that ransom money has also allowed pirates to run a more sophisticated operation. In the Chatham House report, "Piracy in Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars," Roger Middleton, a researcher for the think tank's Africa program, said that pirates are increasingly using "mother ships" to increase their range and scope out targets.
"These are generally fishing trawlers that the pirates capture closer to shore and then use as staging posts for attacks farther out to sea," he said.
More money also means better weapons, usually purchased from Yemen or the country's volatile capital, Mogadishu. The pirates even have a spokesman who frequently gives interviews by satellite phone.
So far, the CMF and the U.S. Navy maintain that once a ship is captured the ransom negotiations and what happens to the cargo is between the shipper and the pirates -- with one exception.
When the pirates grabbed the MV Faini and its load of weaponry Sept. 25, there were fears that the lethal load would find its way into war-torn Somalia or other parts of Africa.
MV Faina Is Cornered
The U.S. Navy dispatched several ships to track and corner the MV Faina to make sure that the pirates were not able to off load any of the cargo. While Christensen said they aren't involved in the ransom negotiations, which have ranged from $8 million to $20 million, the Navy ships will stay there until the situation is resolved.
Piracy is flourishing off the coast of Somalia because on land the country has been embroiled in civil wars for a generation and the current feeble government is busy trying to fend off an Islamic insurrection that threatens to topple it.
In his report, Middleton said the solution must be political, not from the military. "The most powerful weapon against piracy will be peace and opportunity in Somalia, coupled with an effective and reliable police force and judiciary," he wrote.
It's a sentiment Christensen agrees with. "Ultimately, piracy begins ashore," he said. "It is an international problem that requires an international solution. The international community together as a whole needs to engage ashore to deter these acts from starting in the first place."