is a lawless, poverty-stricken country that has been without an effective
central government since dictator Siad Barre's regime was overthrown in 1991. Clashes
between rival warlords, an Islamist insurgency and the country's weak
Transitional Federal Government are common.
"It's a part of the world where life is hard and cheap,"
said David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia
and now a professor at George
People are "willing to take very high risks for very high gains," he said.
With piracy, "they figured out a way to do it."
With the average ransom for a ship approaching $2 million, piracy
is one of the most lucrative businesses in Somalia, the BBC reported. In the
northern region of Puntland, where many pirates are based, business is booming.
"They have money; they have power and they are getting
stronger by the day," Abdi Farah Juha, a resident of the regional capital
of Garowe, told the BBC. "They wed the most beautiful girls; they are
building big houses; they have new cars; new guns."
"Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have
become fashionable," he added.
"The youth are growing up in poverty and violence,"
explained Africa specialist Ted Dagne of
Congressional Research Service. "They know how to shoot, they know
violence; they don't know how to get a job."
lies at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden, a busy shipping lane that connects
the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez
Using high-speed power boats, small bands of heavily armed
raiders ride up to ships many times larger than their own and use grappling
hooks and ladders to climb on board. Once on deck, they subdue the usually
unarmed crew with automatic rifles and anti-tank missiles.
"Most ships don't carry guns for safety reasons," said
Richard DeSimone, president of Ocean Marine at Travelers Insurance, which
insures large shipping vessels. "To ward off a speed boat attack is very
difficult," he said.
Pirates are usually not interested in the cargo of ships
they hijack; instead, they want ransom money.
At least 14 vessels, including a Ukrainian freighter loaded
with Russian battle tanks that was taken last month, are being held in the port
town of Eyl,
the BBC reported.
With better guns and equipment purchased with ransom money, pirates
are becoming more ambitious and brazen in their attacks.
The 1,080-foot MV Sirius Star supertanker hijacked Nov. 15 was
loaded with 2 million barrels of crude oil worth about $100 million. The ship
and 25 crew members were seized more than 450 nautical miles off the African coast.
"This is unprecedented. It's the largest ship that
we've seen pirated," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's
Fifth Fleet told Reuters. "It's three times the size of an aircraft
Piracy has existed at the margins of maritime trade for a
long time, DeSimone said, but the recent string of high-profile hijackings "changes
"It's a completely new environment," he explained.
While attacks used to be infrequent and on smaller ships, piracy now seems to
be "spiraling out of control."
The International Maritime Bureau, which tracks global
piracy, has recorded 92 pirate attacks in Somalia so far this year, including
39 successful hijackings.
Ship operators may choose to avoid the Gulf of Aden entirely
and send their ships around the Southern tip of Africa
instead -- one Norwegian shipper has already done so -- but the added days needed
to circumvent the continent could raise costs by a few hundred thousand dollars,
If they choose the Gulf of Aden,
however, shippers face higher insurance rates due to piracy concerns. "There
is a crisis in shipping right now thanks to the global economic meltdown,"
said Charles Moure, a Seattle-based maritime lawyer. "This does not help."
The multi-national naval force patrolling the waters off Somalia
has had some success in deterring piracy -- an Indian warship sunk a pirate skiff
on Tuesday -- but the attacks continue.
"The size of the area is massive," DeSimone said. "It's
very difficult to keep track of every small craft in the area."
Moure said a more effective response would be to stop paying
ransom. "Negotiations and ransom payments just fuel the fire and cause
more and more seizures of vessels," he said.
He acknowledged that it would endanger crews currently held
by pirates, but noted that ransom just puts future crews at risk. "The U.N.
and various nations involved should treat them as terrorists and not negotiate
with them," Moure said.
"They're called pirates by the media, but really they're
terrorists," he said.