The U.S. Defense Department is hunting the high seas for pirates to prosecute.
For months, the Navy has sought to prevent or disrupt scores of ship hijackings near the Gulf of Aden, mostly by Somali fishermen. During the next week, a U.S.-headed task force to stop the pirates is expected to win authority to capture them and take them to court.
"We have to make it unpleasant to be a pirate," Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney said Thursday. "When we can, we capture them and try them, and hold them accountable for their actions if they're found guilty, is the way we're going to go after them."
More than 100 ships off the Horn of Africa came under siege in the past year, and Gortney said about a dozen unsuccessful hijackings have occurred so far this month. In the last six weeks, four ships have suffered attacks by pirates.
It is not yet clear where the pirates from lawless Somalia would be prosecuted. In the past, Kenyan courts have heard similar cases.
The region is one of the world's most crucial shipping lanes, with oil vessels and other merchant ships carrying billions of dollars worth of cargo. Authorities saw a spike in hijackings about six months ago, which Gortney attributed to pirates knowing they could get an average of $2 million for each ship.
The military usually recommends that companies that own the hijacked ships pay ransom to the pirates. Gortney said pirates currently are holding 11 ships and 210 people hostage. None is a U.S. citizen nor a U.S.-owned ship.
An estimated 21,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden annually; between 200 and 250 are on those waters daily.
At least 111 ships were targeted last year and 42 of them commandeered, including a Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with tanks and heavy weapons and a Saudi oil tanker with $100 million worth of crude.
"It's all about the money," Gortney said. "These all used to be fishermen. Now it's more lucrative to be a pirate."
Currently, only the United States and Britain have joined the task force, but an estimated 20 in the Gulf of Aden region are expected to participate. Fourteen nations already are battling pirates there.
Russia and China are not participating, but they are escorting their own ships through the region to ward off pirate attacks, which Gortney called "a positive sign."
Iran, a regional power in the area, has shown no interest in participating, Gortney said.