The killing of four Americans by suspected Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea is putting the spotlight on challenging international military and legal efforts to end widespread piracy off of Somalia. Experts are suggesting a range of other approaches, including more economic engagement, strategic attacks and reducing ransom payments as possible solutions.
While there have been growing international efforts to deal with what experts call the piracy crisis, the International Maritime Organization says the situation has progressively worsened.
Over the past 12 months, it reports nearly 290 piracy-related incidents, most of them against commercial ships, in a widening area. More and more of the pirates operate from so-called mother ships further and further out at sea, with pirate-filled skiffs sent out to carry out lucrative thefts, hijackings and kidnappings.
Laura Seay, a political scientist at Atlanta's Morehouse College, is currently researching the topic. She says reports indicate more and more hostages are being tortured and even killed, as was the case with the four Americans.
"That has typically not been something that the pirates would do in the past. Primarily because they view it as a business. I mean it is really crude to put it this way but a live hostage is worth more than a dead hostage and so there have been these codes and these rules about treating hostages as well and we have started to see a shift in that in recent months, particularly as enforcement has been stepped up," she said.
Pirate chiefs have recently said they would take revenge for whenever pirates are killed, leading some experts to doubt the effectiveness of military rescue missions.
A professor at George Washington University and former U.S. ambassador in Africa, David Shinn, says arresting and trying the pirates has also proved challenging.
"You have 100 plus in the Kenyan court system at the moment, you have probably a dozen or more in the Seychelles system, you have a few others scattered around Europe and the United States and still the process frequently is to catch and release because they are too much trouble to find places where you can put these Somali pirates. Even if you do, there is no guarantee that they are going to be dealt with expeditiously and in a manner in which they do not get off the hook, as it were," he said.
U.S.-based Africa security expert J. Peter Pham says he sees a link between higher and higher ransoms being collected and the violence escalating.
"Last year we saw record ransoms in the seven, eight, nine-million-dollar ballpark which is several times what it was just a year before. So with these amounts of money at stake, more and more people are getting into the piracy business, thus increasing both the number of pirates out there, the number of incidents, and now you have got a lot of hotheads and others jumping into it after quick riches and some of these people clearly are not thinking rationally so to speak and thus you end up with tragedies like these four Americans who were killed," he said.
Pham says in instances of kidnappings it seems nationals most likely to be targeted are from countries which are most willing to pay high ransoms.
He is also disappointed that most pirates who are intercepted by various navies trying to patrol the dangerous waters are usually released.
Former ambassador Shinn says there should be more of a carrot and stick approach.
The carrot he mentions is more outside help in developing areas in Somalia he calls pirate dens, such as communities along the coast of Puntland in the northeast. The stick would be going after the pirate mother ships, an approach India's navy has already tried.
"The Indians simply sink them. You have to be careful when you do that to make sure that there are not captured persons on board. But in those instances where the Indians have either been attacked by those vessels or they are convinced that there are no hostages on board, they simply sink the mother ships and I think more of that has to be done," he said.
Pham from the activist National Committee on American Foreign Policy is hoping for more international political will to reach a concerted solution, including developing governance capabilities in Somalia.
"There is a lack of governance on land in Somalia and until such time as governance there is incentivized we are not going to see an end to this. The greatest irony is of the Somali territories the one that does the most against piracy actually driving it from its shores, jailing pirates, Somaliland, is not even recognized by the international community whereas we engage with other parts of Somalia where piracy is part and parcel if not of the government, certainly of the political economy," he said.
In the meantime, experts agree that any sailing venture by foreigners in waters anywhere remotely near Somalia is extremely dangerous and to be absolutely avoided if possible.