The U.S. Navy admiral responsible for countering the pirates operating from Somalia said Wednesday that the expanding threat should be addressed with the same rigor applied to counterterrorism.
That's particularly true when it comes to tracing the millions of dollars being paid to ransom captured sailors.
Vice Adm. Mark Fox said he had no "explicit intelligence" that the al-Qaida-connected al Shaba terrorists, who control most of Somalia, are benefiting from the ransom money, but noted that, "I'm loath to hope that there's not" a link.
Fox noted that "millions of dollars are being pumped into the potentially lawless society in Somalia," but the pirates who capture the ships receive only thousands of dollars from the ransoms paid by ship owners.
"We have not used the same level of rigor in terms of following the money in the counter-piracy effort as we have in counter-terror," Fox told a Defense Writers Group breakfast.
He said he has urged an extensive intelligence effort to see if there are links between the ransom money and al Shaba.
"If you lump them completely together, that changes your approach."
Fox, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Fifth Fleet, said the United States and most of the nations cooperating in fighting piracy have used what he termed "the Western approach" to dealing with the ship hijacking, by primarily focusing on the safety of the crew members.
Because of that, with only a few exceptions, force was not used to recover pirated ships. U.S. Navy SEALs killed three pirates who were holding the captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage in 2009, and last year Marines raided the Magellan Star to capture the pirates and rescue the crew. Last week, South Korean commandos recovered a pirated ship, killing most of the pirates.
Fox said he cannot "take off the table" the use of force to resolve a hostage situation.
The admiral said the pirates' increasing use of larger hijacked vessels as "mother ships" to carry the small boats used to raid ships "is a potential game-changer" in the piracy problem.
The Somali pirates initially used skiffs that could not operate in bad weather or go very far offshore. Most of the early pirate attacks were in the nearby Gulf of Aden, the busy shipping route from the Suez Canal and Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. International naval patrols concentrating on that route have virtually eliminated hijackings in the Gulf, he said.
But by using the larger ships, the pirates now are capturing merchant ships more than 1,000 miles away, Fox said. "They are going where we're not," he said.
Because of that far-reaching activity, the number of seamen held hostage by the pirates has jumped from about 350 to 750 since he took command in the summer.
Although international forces "are constantly reassessing" their operations, Fox said, there is no single military solution to the piracy problem. He noted the recent United Nations report urging an international legal framework to deal with the problem, including where captured pirates can be tried.