A modern-day treasure map of pirate strongholds in Somalia may hold the key to solving the maritime crisis off the Horn of Africa. Satellite images have traced the money trail from the multi-million-pound ransoms earned from captured ships.
The images suggest that while cash is trickling down from pirate gangs to the wider economy, comparatively little of it is benefiting the coastal areas used by the pirates to launch attacks on international shipping.
"A negotiated solution to the piracy problem should aim to exploit local disappointment among coastal communities," said Dr Anja Shortland, who analysed the images.
The surge in piracy off Somalia over the past decade has seen hundreds of ships hijacked and up to 1,000 seafarers taken hostage each year. Ransoms totalling $250m (£163m) were paid last year, while the cost of the crisis, including counter-piracy measures, has been estimated at up to $12bn for 2010.
The new research finds that incomes in areas most associated with piracy have caught up with and overtaken those of other previously wealthier parts of the country. The semi-autonomous region of Puntland has been the main haven for pirates and satellite images suggest its capital, Bosasso, has been a major beneficiary. High-resolution photographs show large-scale investment in Bosasso, coinciding with the period in which ransom income increased. New cars, which local interviews have connected with ransom earnings, are also visible.
In addition, night-time satellite images show that since 2007, while the rest of the country was getting darker as people couldn't afford electric light, Garowe and Bosasso got brighter. But the same pictures scotch rumours of pirate palaces being built in Eyl and Hobyo, launching ports for many raids. Neither town registers night-time light emission or large-scale building work.