Who are the Somali pirates and how do they become pirates?
Now that the world is focused on the hostage situation of US Bainbridge captin Richard Phillips, many are wondering who are these Somali pirates and how does someone become a pirate?
Pirates have been around for years, and are currently holding 250 other hostages; 92 of them Filipinos on 16 separate vessels.
The pirates were also in the international limelight in 2008 for the world's largest sea hijack -- a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million of oil -- and the capture of a Ukrainian ship with a huge military cargo including 33 tanks.
The career of pirating started in 1991 after the country of Somalia collapsed into anarchy when former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fell from power. Due to the lack of government, many people turned to illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste into the surrounding waters by foreign boats from Asia and Europe.
The locals didn't like this and formed groups together called 'Somali Coastguards' and the 'National Volunteer Coastguards' to protect their waters from illegal activity by other nations. They also drove away any ships that came into their waters around the coast. Once these groups realized how easy it was for them to capture other countrys' ships, they transformed into pirate gangs, based on the legend of pirates from centuries before.
Pirating is a wealthy occupation. The men accumulate ransom money and money from stolen goods and buy bigger guns, speedboats and tracking devices. They often operate aboard a 'mother ship' and when they spot a potential target, they launch speedboats to approach the target from either side and board the foreign vessel.
They do sometimes fire shots at the boat to scare the crew and as most foreign vessels are unarmed, they have little to defend themselves from an armed attack. Some hostages that have been freed say that they were treated well, as the pirates want to keep them alive to get the ransom money. Some have even said that they were allowed to call their loved ones while being held hostage.
The numbers of pirates are growing all the time; it is thought that several hundred are now operating around the coast of Somalia. The poor of Somalia see this profession as fruitful and prosperous so pirate ships are never in short supply of applicants.
Earlier this year even, over $6 million was made by the pirates in return for the safe release of Saudi tanker the 'Sirius Star' and the Ukranian ship, the 'MV Fania'.
In 2008, ransoms issued by the pirates were between $500,000 and $2 million.
There is a hierarchy in the pirate community, with the leaders taking bigger cuts and leading a flashier lifestyle. Local rulers along the shore of Somalia also take a cut that allows the pirates to still operate in the open seas.
The international community is calling for stability to be achieved in Somalia so that pirating can be controlled that way. Civil unrest has been taking place in Somalia now for 18 years.
There have been 14 attempts to restore the government since 1991, and the United Nations have stated that they are hopeful that this year, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, will bring much needed peach to the region.
Ahmed has a lot of support in Somalia but he faces conflict from pro-al Qaeda militant Islamists.
Some shipping companies have decided to go around the coast of South Africa now so that they can avoid the Gulf of Aden, but this costs a lot more money as it is a much longer route.
Right now, the world's attention is focused on Phillips, but what happens when this hostage situation is over?