What comes into your head the moment I say the word "pirate"? Most probably a romantic vision of a dashing swordsman in a 17th-century costume and wig. It is an image that belongs to the past, but pirates are still around and, where the rule of law is weak, it is a thriving industry.
Today there are pirates operating in the Malacca Straits (off west Malaysia), the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The most ruthless and successful have for some time been coming out of the failed state of Somalia, which occupies a strategic position on the Horn of Africa next to one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Container ships loaded with manufactured goods from China head up to the Suez Canal and on to the Mediterranean, while down from the Gulf are laden oil tankers, such as the Sirius Star, going south and heading for the Cape.
The modern-day Somalian pirate comes from a country where some of Africa's worst factional fighting and communal killing has taken place. He is either an ex-militia fighter or a fisherman, and would have known deprivation and insecurity all his life. He will now have access to mobile phones, GPS devices and other expensive technologies, amassed by the reinvestment of cash from ship ransoms. He will be armed with a personalised Kalashnikov assault rifle and will be capable of firing rocket-propelled grenade launchers. And if he has any sense, he will steer well clear of the ongoing conflict in Somalia between the ruling Union of Islamic Courts, the strong al-Qa'ida presence, and the western-backed African Union and Ethiopian "occupation" forces.
If the enforcers of law and order are to gain any sort of grip on piracy, they need to know one thing first of all: that for a former fisherman, the life of a pirate is one of unimaginable riches. So far this year, there have been nearly 100 captures off Somalia, reaping millions of dollars in ransom and protection money. Together with their sponsors and dependants among the local clans and wider Somali diaspora, pirates dominate the primary supply and transit route for al-Qa'ida and other Islamic groups, which have steadily built up their presence and capability in Somalia and the East African littoral, as far down as Kenya.
Our pirates sometimes sail in dhows and other small ships, carrying a variety of cargoes, which combine legitimate goods with human, drugs and arms trafficking and illicit smuggling between Yemen, Eritrea and Somalia.
Elsewhere, pirate attacks have traditionally been launched against ships in harbour, at anchor or transiting international straits close to land. Because of frequent seizures by Somali pirates, passing ships now steer well out to sea. As a result, pirates have responded by extending their reach to the high seas, and with the use of mother ships, carrying a fleet of small, fast speedboats, are now capable of targeting ships well out into the Indian Ocean. The boarding operations display high levels of daring, coordination and competence.
Their actions have resulted in the diversion of substantial numbers of merchant ships away from one of the busiest shipping routes in the world (carrying 8 per cent of the world's sea traffic); a tenfold increase in insurance premiums for ships transiting the area; and a serious dislocation of the UN's World Food Programme for Somalia. Recent attacks have attracted a forceful response by the international community to deter, disrupt and, if necessary, defeat further attacks and seizures.
In the past two months, these pirates have been frustrated by the increasing numbers of warships and military aircraft that have come into the Gulf of Aden and approached the coast of Somalia. A number of times, pirates have gone to sea in response to a cue from an informant in Djibouti about a transiting ship, only to find a warship in the vicinity of the vessel.
Last week, some of them set off to intercept a merchant ship in a dhow towing high-powered skiffs. In two of the skiffs they then simulated chasing fish and headed at speed for the ship, which manoeuvred violently and sought assistance. A heavily armed helicopter arrived. With only a Kalashnikov and rocket-propelled grenades, fishing seemed the better option. But one day they may be able to obtain more capable weapons – perhaps portable surface-to-air missiles.
While diplomatic and commercial efforts are being geared to the early release of the ships and crews currently being held, transit corridors and inspection regimes in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia are being set up by sea and air forces to prevent further attacks. The pirates will be aware that future opportunities and revenue could dry up. Last week, a warship sank a Somali dhow. For pirates, it is now time to lie low up the coast and enjoy their share of the huge ransom likely to result from the Saudi tanker deal. The foreign ships will have to go away at some stage and, if normal traffic resumes, so will the pirate's trade, just like the time after the Islamic Courts tried to suppress him and his kind in 2006. He is not just a pirate, he is an organised criminal, with a network of associates spread all around the coasts of East Africa and Yemen.
That pirates are exposing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of international shipping has not been lost on al-Qa'ida and Hezbollah, which have frequently stated their desire to gain a maritime capability, mainly to enable attacks on offshore and land-based installations from the sea.
In future, amid intensifying competition over the use of the resources of the sea and uneven globalisation, there are likely to be more failed states with strategically located coastlines. Pirates will become better equipped and armed, with access to weapons and technologies of increasing sophistication. The sea is a physical version of the worldwide web, and global prosperity and stability will depend crucially on its continued free and unhindered use.
Rear-Admiral Chris Parry is the former director general of development, concepts and doctrine at the Ministry of Defence