Sunday’s rescue of Richard Phillips, the skipper of the Maersk Alabama, from Somali pirates brought home an old story.

Pirates have been around since at least the days of the Roman Republic. Whether in the Caribbean or off the North African coasts, piracy has a rich and often exaggerated history, romanticized and popularized by Hollywood. But for sailors plying the ocean in and around the Malaccan Straits and the Horn of Africa, pirates have been a serious matter.

What appears to have been a highly professional dispatch of three Somali thugs and the capture of a fourth was hailed as a major win for the Obama administration. For those who advocate hitting these pirates hard ashore — as the Leathernecks did in 1804 — or at sea, this incident provided further evidence for strong action. However, as the U.S. Navy noted, the rescue of the brave captain could provoke a greater response by Somali pirates, who number in the thousands.

So what should be done to take on this longstanding scourge of the high seas and coastal waters?

First, and with deference to the scores of pirate attacks this year and the 200 or so hostages, Somali piracy represents a predictable rise in criminal activity and not a national-security danger or crisis. Second, there are sensible solutions that need not cost a great deal of money or require huge naval and maritime enforcement fleets deployed to the Red Sea or the Horn. And third, attacking pirates ashore with cruise missiles and airstrikes would be akin to hitting mobsters and criminals in inner cities with airpower. That will not work.

Solutions to this criminal epidemic are not complicated. A system of maritime notification and traffic control not dissimilar to the governance of international airspace is essential. Ironically, the location of virtually every commercial aircraft around the globe is known, plotted and exchanged. Why cannot a similar system, of which there are many available, be extended to the maritime domain? As pilots report real-time dangers such as weather, that are quickly passed to other aircraft, ships can file on sightings of possible pirate activity so other vessels can steer clear.

The U.S. Navy has invented the notion of maritime partnerships, in which both men of war and commercial vessels would routinely exchange information pertaining to safe navigation. These partnerships can be one basis for developing what is called “situational awareness” — meaning, in non-jargon terms, warnings and information. Through this means, the equivalent of a maritime traffic-safety and -control system can be put in place.

Shipping companies have found it more convenient and, they say, less costly to pay ransom rather than to protect their ships. Questions about crew proficiency in small arms have discouraged merchant ships from carrying defensive weapons. And concerns about escalating violence and danger, as suggested by the Navy, if shootouts occur are valid.

Yet how do we protect government civilian employees who venture into harm’s way, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan? We hire professionals to do that. Yes, there have been excesses such as Blackwater in Iraq. However, if protecting merchant ships from pirates is important, why not hire professional bodyguards for that job and put them on ships? Surely the costs cannot be greater that the ransom paid.

A larger danger, however, could arise from piracy. Should al-Qaida decide that the oceans provide the means to turn ships into the equivalent of civilian airliners made into bombers on Sept. 11, 2001, one attack would be all that it might take to shut down a major port or impose huge damage. The prospect of a 300,000-deadweight-ton supertanker or container ship hurtling at 30 knots into a major port and then ramming into major structures such as New York City’s Battery or the George Washington Bridge is a real nightmare scenario.

And if that ship were carrying 30,000 tons of liquid gas or another product that could be turned into an explosive, such as grain, the result could have the force of the nuclear weapons that demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That would be an attack that surely would surpass Sept. 11 by any means of reckoning.

Al-Qaida may pass on this piracy option. Obviously, ships hijacked in the Indian Ocean would be a long way from tempting terrorist targets in Europe or America. But that does not mean “piracy” could not happen closer to home.

Somali pirates are a problem, and to a small number of ships they are a real threat. In dealing with them, however, we can put in place the means to contain the much larger danger of al-Qaida becoming the 21st century equivalents of Barbary pirates on steroids.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This article was previously published as “To the Shores of Tripoli” at UPI’s column, Outside View