NAIROBI (Reuters) - It took the capture and rescue five days later of an American hostage to draw world attention back to the long-running phenomenon of Somali piracy.
The pirates also grabbed headlines last year for the world’s largest sea hijack — a Saudi supertanker carrying oil worth $100 million — and the seizure of a Ukrainian ship with a huge military cargo including 33 tanks.
Away from the international limelight, the gangs have been striking regularly for years. After the rescue of U.S. ship captain Richard Phillips, they still hold about 260 hostages, including nearly 100 Filipinos, on 17 captured vessels.
So who are these modern-day buccaneers?
* When warlords toppled former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia collapsed into anarchy. That led to a wave of illegal fishing, plus dumping of toxic and industrial waste, in Somali waters by foreign fleets from Europe and Asia.
* Towards the end of the decade, local fishermen and militia formed groups with names like the “Somali Coastguards” and the “National Volunteer Coastguards,” to drive away or apprehend the vessels from South Korea, Italy, Spain, Thailand and elsewhere.
* Seeing how easy it was to capture ships, those groups metamorphosed this decade into old-fashioned pirate gangs, becoming ever more sophisticated in methods and bold in range.
* In the early days, pirates with a few guns used fishing boats to approach vessels, and then simply tried to scramble on board or throw up ropes.
* As they gained money from ransoms, plus experience, they bought speedboats, tracking devices and more powerful weapons. Typically these days, a “mother ship” first spots a target, and a couple of speedboats are then launched to approach the vessel on either side and board with hooks and ladders.
* Pirates sometimes fire shots over the bow to scare sailors. Often, boats will try defensive action like zigzagging in the sea or even spraying the pirates with water from high pressure hoses. Most vessels, however, are unarmed, in keeping with international maritime practice, so sailors normally surrender quickly once the pirates are on deck.
* Hostages say they are generally well treated, with the pirates viewing them as common men caught up in a wider game: the pursuit of million-dollar ransoms from owners. Some have described the pirates slaughtering and roasting goats on board to feed them, and passing round satellite phones to let them call loved ones back home.
* Although traditional elders disapprove and condemn them as “immoral,” the number of pirates is growing, with hundreds now working in a network of gangs.
* Many poor and unemployed young Somalis see piracy as a dazzling alternative to their hard lives, given the quick money to be made. Somalis say they are lining up to go to sea.
* The gangs are based in villages and small towns along Somalia’s long coast, in lairs like Eyl, Hobyo and Haradheere.
* Ship owners have been paying increasingly high ransoms with regularity. Earlier this year, the pirates made more than $6 million from the negotiated release of the Saudi supertanker the Sirius Star and the Ukrainian vessel the MV Faina.
* Ransoms during 2008, when 42 vessels were captured, ranged from $500,000 to $2 million, experts say.
* The pirates reinvest some of their money in better equipment and boats. They also spend plenty of it on flashy living, taking new wives, building palatial villas and buying 4x4 vehicles. Some get involved in smuggling.
* Financiers and masterminds, who are generally older than the young pirates, take a large cut of ransoms.
* Local rulers also take a share to allow the pirates to operate unchecked out of their territories.
* All analysts agree that the best way to suppress piracy off Somalia is to achieve stability onshore, where civil conflict has raged for the last 18 years.
* Fourteen attempts to restore central government have failed since 1991, and a 15th one is in its infancy. The United Nations and others are hopeful that the administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, set up earlier this year, is the best chance in recent times of bringing peace to Somalia.
* Ahmed is a moderate Islamist with widespread support inside and outside Somalia, but he faces an insurgency by pro-al Qaeda militant Islamists and his government really controls little but a few parts of the capital Mogadishu.
* At sea, more than a dozen countries have provided ships for a flotilla of naval patrols off Somalia since the end of 2008. That brought an initial dip in the number of attacks, especially in the Gulf of Aden, where the patrols were concentrated. But the ever more brazen pirates have simply moved their operations further out into the Indian Ocean.
* Though world attention has been focussed on Phillips the American and his rescue, Somali piracy causes enormous hardship and stress for the hundreds of hostages still caught up in it, mainly from the Third World. Released captives say they live in constant fear of being killed by the pirates or during a rescue attempt, and worry about wives and children far away. Some said pirates beat them, though in general their treatment is humane.
* Some shippers have decided to incur the extra cost and time of sending cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Gulf of Aden into the Suez Canal en route to Europe.
* Insurance premiums have risen for the whole industry.
* Somalia has suddenly come into President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in-tray. Americans will shudder at the memory of a disastrous U.S. intervention in the early 1990s, including the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle when 18 U.S. servicemen were killed.
Editing by Daniel Wallis