Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become a multi-million dollar business as armed Somali gunmen attack all sorts of vessels - from small pleasure crafts to giant oil supertankers - transiting the region.  The pirates are not interested in the cargo or crew.  They only want ransom money that can reach several million dollars per vessel.

In an effort to combat piracy, naval ships from the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, India and others have been dispatched to the region - especially to the Gulf of Aden.  But analysts, such as J. Peter Pham with James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, say the pirates have changed their tactics.

"However, perversely, because of that increased international presence in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have shifted their operations to the western part of the Indian Ocean,'" he said.  "And that presents a problem, because the approximately two dozen ships from various navies of the world, including the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and others, cannot possibly cover the more than one million square miles of the area that the pirates have now shifted their operations onto," he said. 

International navies can do little

Many analysts say increasing the international naval presence in the region will do little to stem the piracy problem.

Experts say pirates operate from well-known bases on the Somali coast.

Peter Chalk, a maritime security analyst with the RAND Corporation, says the naval presence does not address the problem of the coastal Somali communities.

"For the coastal communities, the pirates are the major economic influx to their livelihood.  Piracy is stimulating local economies in many of these areas.  A whole trade is emerging around the logistics to provide for ships when they are in port," he noted.  "And it's rumored that at least 20 percent of ransom payments are re-invested back into coastal communities.  So the coastal communities themselves have no vested interest in turning in the pirates and have a great deal of interest in protecting them," he said. 

The option of attacking pirate bases

Analysts such as Retired U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Peters say it may be necessary to attack the pirate bases in Somalia.

"So what you could do is when you have identified a village or port town that is clearly supporting piracy, you go in and destroy every vessel in the harbor.  That would help.  It would get people's attention.  Because if you are not willing to punish people severely for crimes and are not willing to affect the livelihoods of those who support the criminals, you are not going to get real results," he said.

J. Peter Pham says the pirate bases are well known.

"Ninety percent of the Somali piracy occurs out of two ports, [Eyl and Haraardheere].  We know where they are.  We even know who the pirate leaders are because they use their fabulous wealth to build huge and rather ostentatious mansions that are there for everyone to see," he said.

But analyst Peter Chalk questions whether attacking Somali territory is the right answer.

"What I hope does not happen is that we get a dramatic response - we start sending a military force, particularly on land - because the possibilities of civilian casualties are enormous.  In the end, this is simply a form of crime," he said.  "It's a law enforcement problem and to have a military solution to a law enforcement problem, in my opinion, is not the way to go.  And you are almost certainly going to create a situation far worse than the one that you are confronting at the moment," he added. 

Somali good governance key to solution

 Chalk says one way to address the problem is for the international community to provide the countries around Somalia - Kenya, Djibouti and Yemen - with coastal patrol boats to confront the pirates.

But virtually all analysts agree that to defeat piracy the international community must address the root of the problem: Somalia itself, which has been without an effective central government since 1991.  

"Ultimately, there can never be a solution to the disorder at sea without a resolution of the statelessness and lack of an effective government on Somali territory, on land.  Because that is what gives the pirates an opportunity to essentially have a safe haven for their piracy," said analyst J. Peter Pham.

Pham and other analysts say that without an effective system of governance in Somalia, piracy will continue to flourish.  But they say that for now, very few governments have shown much interest in addressing Somalia's problems.