It was an unabashed attack on the high seas that delivered an extraordinary bounty - $100 million worth of crude oil. But the Somali pirates who hijacked a Saudi Arabia-owned supertanker off the coast of Kenya over the weekend - and later seized two freighters in the Gulf of Aden and defied an Indian navy vessel sent to intercept them - have shown a brazenness that should chill commercial shipowners. Combating piracy at sea has become a matter of international urgency that will require a coordinated response on many fronts.
Piracy in that part of the world has been a growing menace for more than a decade, yet for much of that time, shipowners and insurers preferred to handle the problem quietly by paying off the bandits in sums that can exceed $10 million. The result has been merely to embolden the hijackers. Ships carrying international aid supplies have been frequent targets.
American warships in the area and several European Union countries as well as Russia and India have pledged to cooperate in patrols. An Indian warship sank a pirate vessel this week. Saudi Arabia also vowed to join the fight. But officials concede there aren't enough warships to guard every vessel in the 2 million-square-mile area.
Many of the pirates are former Somali fishermen and merchant seamen whose livelihoods were disrupted by the civil war that followed the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991. Villages along Somalia's 1,900-mile coastline have become pirate havens comparable to the towns along the Barbary Coast in 19th-century North Africa.
Western ships have pursued pirate vessels inside Somali waters. But attacking the pirates' havens would need a mandate from the United Nations or a request for intervention by other countries in the region. Any solution should include helping Somalia, which has been preoccupied fighting an Islamic insurgency, regain control of its territory, strengthening its coast guard and stepping up international patrols. Maritime insurers may also require ships to carry their own security guards.
What Western countries must take care not to do is push the pirates, who mostly just want money, into an alliance of convenience with Somalia's Islamic insurgents, some of whom have links to al-Qaida. That would only increase the risk that terrorists might eventually use them to disrupt the international sea lanes on which much of the world's trade depends.