In April 2009, Somali pirates attempted to capture an American-flagged ship, taking its captain hostage. U.S. military sharpshooters brought the incident to a relatively quick end, killing three of the four hostage takers.

While this dramatic event may have been the first time that many Americans had heard of Somali pirates, their activity and audacity has been growing for some years.

By 2008--after decades in which the Straits of Malacca, the Caribbean, and the Nigerian coast consistently witnessed the most incidents of maritime piracy--a full 111 out of the total 293 pirate attacks worldwide happened off the coast of Somalia alone.

Perhaps the most spectacular attack came on November 15, 2008 when pirates boarded the Saudi owned Sirius Star, a 330-meter tanker (318,000 deadweight tons) carrying over $100 million of oil. Attacked 833 kilometers off the coast of Kenya, the pirates used a mother ship, disguised as a fishing trawler, to launch small boats that overtook the Sirius Star.

"This is unprecedented," a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet said. "It is the largest ship that we've seen pirated." The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, said: "I'm stunned by the range of it. The pirates are very good at what they do. They're very well armed. Tactically, they are very good."

Cyrus Mody of the International Maritime Bureau characterized the event as historic: "It is the first attack of its kind in which such a big vessel has been hijacked so far away from the coast. It shows that the pirates now have the capability and capacity to sustain themselves in deep sea until the vessel actually comes by."

Under the pirates' command, the Sirius Star sailed to a mooring off the coast of an area known as the Puntland region where it joined a dozen other hijacked ships.

The autonomous state of Puntland is located at the very tip of the Horn of Africa, between Somalia to the south and the Somaliland Republic (formerly British Somaliland) to the west. [click here for a map] Unlike Somaliland, which has for years been seeking international recognition as an independent state, Puntland envisions itself as a federal but self-governing division of Somalia.

In the case of the Sirius Star, ransom negotiations took about two months—the original $25 million demand settled for $3 million. The negotiations for the Ukrainian ship Faina, which was transporting 33 T-72 tanks, 150 grenade launchers, 6 antiaircraft guns, and ammunition to Kenya and Southern Sudan, took five months. The crews survived their ordeal, the exception being the captain of the Faina, who died of a stroke soon after his capture.

Ancient Traditions, Modern Pirates

The Horn of Africa has long had its pirates. For thousands of years, the weather patterns and currents of the Indian Ocean have transported watercraft from Africa to Arabia, Arabia into the Persian Gulf, then off to the west coast of India, and back again. Trade with the Mediterranean world sailed south on the Red Sea, through the Bab el Mandeb, into the Indian Ocean and beyond. [ Indian Ocean Map ]

An early travel guide, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written in Greek in the first century AD by an anonymous merchant, noted the richness of the maritime trade. He also warned that along the coast of Azania (what is now Somalia) "live men of piratical habits…."

Claudius Ptolemy, in Geographia, first published in 150 AD, identified the Horn region south of Cape Guardafui as "the Gulf of Barbaria." "Men of the greatest stature, who are pirates, inhabit the whole coast and at place have set up chiefs."

One-thousand seven hundred years later, in 1854, when the great British explorer Richard Burton embarked on a Royal Geographic Society trip to the port of Berbera, the British officials in Aden worried. Attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden were common. Major Gordon Laing had been murdered leaving Harar in 1826.

As Burton himself noted, in First Footsteps in East Africa, "the more adventurous Abyssinian travelers, Salt and Stuart, Krapf and Isenberg, Barker and Rochet—not to mention divers[e] Roman Catholic Missioners—attempted Harar, but attempted it in vain." With a well armed retinue and dressed as an Arab trader, Burton and his caravan succeeded in getting to Harar and back. But in April of 1855, as they prepared to leave Berbera, their party was attacked by a group of "Bedouin brigands." Lieutenant Stoyan was killed. John Speke and Burton suffered severe injuries, the latter a spear wound to his face that penetrated both cheeks and took out two molars.

Pirates and the International State System

While current incidents of piracy off the Horn of Africa are part of a long tradition, they must also be understood in the context of modern history and modern notions of borders, state sovereignty, and territorial waters.

In accordance with the doctrine of national sovereignty, some 200 internationally recognized states claim virtually all of the earth's land and coastal water. Moreover, the international community assumes that each state polices its own territorial land and waters. [For more on how the international community regulates the seas, see Mansel Blackford's Origins article on ocean Fishing].

When states fail, however, as in the case of Somalia and Puntland—neither of which has done much to control or confront the pirates on their shores—the international state system has a problem.

The case of the Sirius Star is a particularly vexatious example of the global repercussions of one state's unwillingness to fully police its territory. The price of oil on the global market rose for one or two days after the hijacking. There was fear that an oil spill—with 2 million barrels, a greater volume than the Exxon Valdez—would damage Indian Ocean ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them.

The Egyptians became alarmed that this and other incidents would discourage traffic through the Suez—especially when Europe's largest shipping company announced it was rerouting some ships to the Cape of Good Hope. Finally, there were 25 hostages from Britain, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Croatia, and the Philippines.

In the fall of 2008, the U.N., the European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League gathered to discuss various courses of action. How would they counter pirates on international waters, and deal with Somalia's failure to carry out its territorial responsibilities?

A strong consensus emerged around the principle of freedom of the seas, checked by nearly as strong opposition to the violation of state sovereignty. On the issues of negotiating with the pirates (that is paying ransom), the prosecution of pirates, and whether to arm merchant ships, there was no consensus.

Ultimately, the United Nations Security Council found a middle ground, calling on states using the Indian Ocean to provide naval escorts in non-territorial waters. On December 8 the EU launched Operation Atalanta, deploying six warships and aircraft to patrol the Gulf of Aden—despite considerable skepticism in home governments. China, the United States, Russia, India, and Pakistan joined together in Combined Task Force-150 to deploy more warships and airplanes, thus maintaining a presence in the area.

Piracy, Population, and State Failure in Somalia

Somali pirate operations on the high seas are a result of what has happened to the nation of Somalia, both politically and in terms of rapid population growth. According to political scientist Kenneth J. Menkhaus, Somalia now is "by far the longest-running instance of state collapse in the post-colonial era."

Other analysts agree. In the respected journal Foreign Policy (March/April 2009), the historian Niall Ferguson placed Somalia (as well as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Russia and Mexico) in the "axis of upheaval." These states, he argued, are beset by the historical equivalent of a perfect storm: ethnic competition, economic difficulties, and empire collapse.

Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, pronounced Somalia "the most dangerous place in the world." "The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets."

How, we should ask, has Somalia come to this?