The world's attention was riveted in April 2009 when Somali pirates tried to seize the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo vessel delivering relief supplies to Africa. Although the crew was able to fight off the intruders, the pirates seized the ship's skipper, Richard Phillips, and spent the next five days holding him hostage in a lifeboat bobbing in the Gulf of Aden, until U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed the three remaining pirates and freed Phillips. There was a sigh of relief back in the United States, but it hardly meant an end to the pirate menace. In fact, within two days of Phillips' rescue, pirates had seized four more merchant ships and more hostages.
Piracy off the coast of East Africa is growing at an alarming rate, with 41 ships attacked in 2007, 122 in 2008, and 102 as of mid-May 2009. The more high-profile captures include a Saudi supertanker full of oil and a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks and other weapons. An estimated 19 ships and more than 300 crew members are still being held by pirates who are awaiting ransom payments from ship owners or insurers. Such fees have been estimated to total more than $100 million in recent years, making piracy one of the most lucrative industries and pirates one of the biggest employers in Somalia, a country with a per capita GDP of $600. Reported connections between the pirates and al Shabab -- "the youth," a Taliban-style group of Islamist extremists with ties to al Qaeda -- make the situation even more worrisome, notwithstanding some recent evidence of an Islamic backlash against the marauders in parts of Somalia.
THE SWARMING SEAS
Piracy was once a far more serious problem than it is today. In a history of piracy published in 1907, Colonel John Biddulph, a retired British army officer, wrote of the early 1700s:
From the moment of losing sight of the Lizard [the southernmost post in England] till the day of casting anchor in the port of destination an East India ship was never safe