The Big Question: Why has piracy exploded off the coast of Somalia, and how can it be stopped?

Why are we asking this now?

Hijackings off the coast of Somalia this year have posed a grave threat to the lives of sailors taking cargo ships through the region – and captured the attention of the world's exporters by vastly increasing the costs of global trade. An already dramatic problem had its profile raised still further this week by the most audacious attack yet: the seizure of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star and her £100m oil cargo. Yesterday, that was followed by the capture of The Delight, a grain ship with a crew of 25 which was seized off the coast of Yemen. Another vessel registered in Kiribati, with a 12-strong crew, was also attacked yesterday morning.

Is it a new problem in modern times?

No. Piracy has been a thorn in the side of exporters for years. But in the past, the problem has mostly been confined to Malaysia. The recent increase in incidents near Somalia is a dramatic change from that pattern. Previously, the existence of pirates was a side-effect of Somali fishermen taking to the seas with weapons as a means of defending their tuna-rich waters and extracting a kind of informal tax from commercial fleets that came from around the world to exploit the otherwise defenceless region.

But the fishermen began to realise there could be greater profits to be made than simply retaining their fish stocks. In 2004, fewer than ten attacks were reported in the region. In 2007, there were about 25 and this year there have been 95. With 16,000 ships heading through the Gulf of Aden every year, and pirates having a virtual stranglehold on the thin channel that constitutes its northern entrance, there is plenty of scope for things to get worse.

Isn't piracy rather romantic?

Perhaps in the popular imagination, where fictional figures from Captain Pugwash to Jack Sparrow have always stood for an unwillingness to bow to authority, and a bracing life of freedom on the high seas. In reality, piracy has never been a very noble pursuit. In the days of the Romans, Phoenician pirates sold captives as slaves; in the first century BC, Cicilian pirates from what is now western Turkey routinely killed sailors they attacked and tried to starve Rome by cutting off food supplies. During the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean, from 1660 to 1720, even Captain Henry Morgan – who died a member of the establishment and gave his name to a brand of rum – burned Panama to the ground, killing or making homeless all of the city's residents.

So why has the situation changed?

The biggest reason is the collapse of law and order in Somalia. As recently as 2006, the strict rule of the Islamic Courts Union made most people too scared to join pirate gangs. The demise of that government left a vacuum in which the pirates can do more or less as they please, and easily get hold of the guns and rocket-propelled grenades they need to board cargo ships. As poor Somalis have seen, those willing to take to the high seas rake in massive profits from ransoms at little apparent risk. The temptation to join them and escape lives of poverty has increased. What government remains in Somalia is unwilling or unable to take any kind of stand. Indeed, it may even be profiting from the buccaneering enterprise of its citizens. One jailed pirate, Farah Ismail Eid, said recently that up to 30 per cent of most hijackers' profits went to government officials. "Believe me, a lot of our money has gone straight into their pockets," he added.

Why is the attack on the Sirius Star so important?

It suggests a new daring among the pirates. Roger Middleton, a consultant researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, wrote in a briefing paper last month: "At present it seems that scaling the high sides of large oil tankers is beyond their capabilities." But the Sirius Star was a large oil tanker with high sides. "This is absolutely a new development, and a very disturbing new development," Mr Middleton said yesterday. "We would have assumed that vessels like this were pretty safe, but apparently that is no longer the case. They are getting bolder – it's as simple as that."

The other remarkable feature of the attack on the Sirius Star is that the ship was a good 450 miles southeast of the coast of Kenya – at least twice as far from shore as pirates in the region have ever struck before. Experts say the pirates have taken to using "mother ships" from which they launch smaller boats to attack their targets, and that the practice has drastically increased the range and flexibility of the hijackers.

Why has it seemed so risk-free to the pirates?

For years, shipping companies have calculated that it is worth the expense of paying ransoms to secure their cargoes, and very few of their ships have been well-defended. And in comparison to the hulking super-tankers they take on, the skiffs from which pirates board are nimble and elusive. In most instances, there is at most a 15- minute gap between first sighting of the attackers and being boarded – not long enough for nearby naval vessels to get close before the pirates have hostages. With typical ransoms of between £170,000 and £840,000, it is hardly surprising that so many are tempted.

What consequences do the attacks have?

Sailors aboard targeted vessels face the prospect of weeks in captivity and even death – although relatively few have been killed. In general the pirates are said to keep captives in reasonable conditions.

The insurance premiums paid by shipping companies have soared since the attacks began in earnest, and anyone sending freight around the east coast of Africa now has to pay about ten times what they did last year. That has an inevitable knock-on effect for consumers, with prices bound to rise at the Western destinations of so many cargo ships. Shipping companies might even begin to send their vessels on longer journeys around Africa's west coast, and if that happens the economic consequences here could be considerable. There are questions, too, about the ultimate destination of much of the pirates' loot: there are reports linking the funds to the militia group Al-Shabaab, which is on the US government's list of terrorist organisations. And if piracy benefits government officials, it is hard to see how responsible government can return to Somalia soon.

So what can be done to stop the pirates?

Efforts have already been made to organise a "safe lane" in which ships are better protected, although the continued attacks suggest this has been unsuccessful. Western governments have ramped up their military presence in the region, with an outgoing Nato fleet due to be replaced soon with a much larger EU force. The security contractor Blackwater, fresh from Iraq, has also announced it will be sending forces to the region. The shipping companies themselves have been urged to increase the armed presence on their ships. In the end, though, only a stronger Somali government can put an end the problem. Until then, the pirates seem likely to continue undaunted, infused with something of the buccaneering spirit of their predecessors. "We are not afraid," said the pirate leader, Sugule Ali, after boarding the weapons freighter Faina in September. "We know you only die once."

Can military contractors stop the pirate attacks?

Yes...

* Crews have only non-lethal weapons such as sonic cannons, which are little threat to armed pirates

* Naval vessels are too cumbersome to respond to a pirate attack with the necessary speed

* There simply aren't enough navy ships there to cover the amount of cargo going through the Gulf of Aden

No...

* Pirates will not be afraid to use their weapons if they see that their opponents have lethal force

* Private contractors do not have the same kind of legal authority as national armed forces

* If there aren't enough military vessels, the answer is to provide more – not fill the gap with mercenaries

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