The Somali pirates who bagged their biggest catch yet in the form of a Saudi supertanker have been called a lot of things: fearless, sophisticated, canny, greedy and desperate.
But they are, at root, the product of two things: lawlessness and poverty, which feed off each other in Somalia and have made it the world’s most stubborn failed state since the early 1990s.
It was a telling coincidence that on Saturday, just hours after the Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker, was seized, Abdullahi Yusuf, Somalia’s president, admitted that his enfeebled government had lost control of most of the country to resurgent Islamist rebels.
The Islamists are not allies of the pirates, but their multi-dimensional conflict with the interim government, its Ethiopian military backers and rival clan militias has destroyed thousands of lives and most of Somalia’s economy.
“The problem is not at sea but on the land, because that’s where people don’t have any livelihoods,” says one diplomat who follows the country.
A lack of jobs, combined with drought-driven food shortages and a low-level civil war, was what first made piracy attractive.
But its appeal has been enhanced by the conspicuous consumption of pirates, who for the first time this year have been rolling in multi-million dollar ransoms and splashing their cash on imported food, alcohol, drugs and prostitutes. In formerly sleepy seaside towns such as Eyl and Hobyo, which they have turned into mafia-style dens, some pirates are even reported to be building ostentatious concrete homes that tower over the huts of their neighbours.
More than 30 hijackings this year have made the waters off Somalia the most dangerous in the world, but piracy originated in the region in the 1990s as a response to illegal fishing by foreign crews.
Today many fishermen have become part of the pirate gangs, providing maritime expertise and piloting the speedboats from which attacks are launched.
The pirates’ weapons of choice – machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades – are handled by young muscle men who board ships by ladder and are frequently recruited from clan militias.
Technology experts bring the skills needed to operate global positioning systems and other tools of modern shipping: the pirates who seized the Sirius Star had by Tuesday steered the ship and its 2m barrels of oil to near the Somali coast from the point where it was seized south-east of Mombasa, in Kenya.
Each pirate gang is led by an onshore chief but, says Roger Middleton, a consultant researcher at Chatham House, a think-tank, they seem to operate independently of each other.
As criminal enterprises, the gangs have become the maritime expression of the money-making banditry that has thrived for years on Somali soil. “It’s not really piracy, to be honest. They’re not interested in the cargo. It’s hostage-taking,” says the diplomat, noting that what they do is essentially no different from onshore kidnappings of western aid workers and journalists by ransom-seeking thugs.
Speculation abounds on links between pirates and the heavyweights of Somalia’s politico-military scene, not least because the Puntland region that pirates have made their home is Mr Yusuf’s heartland. But Mr Middleton says the pirates do not have political ambitions and are financially self-sufficient. They do not need to be bankrolled by any of Somalia’s politicians. Money, however, is probably flowing in the opposite direction.
“They’re paying off any significant political and military powers so they can carry on with their activities unhindered,” he said.
Get alerts on Global Economy when a new story is published