The pirates are back again - and unlikely to go away, says Sunday Telegraph chief foreign correspondent Colin Freeman, who was kidnapped in Somalia for six weeks.
Last Updated: 8:43PM BST 11 Apr 2009
An unpleasant shiver coursed down my timbers as I saw the pictures of a party of terrified French yachters being held at gunpoint by Somali pirates.
Like them, I too have had the chance to study the business end of a pirate's Kalashnikov close-up. Back in November last year, while in northern Somalia reporting on the piracy problem for the Sunday Telegraph, a gang of them kidnapped my photographer and I, holding us hostage in caves for six weeks,
During our time in captivity we lived on goat meat, received occasional death threats, and dodged bullets round the cave one day when the pirates fought with a rival gang. But in general, we were lucky - we were released before anybody felt it necessary to risk an armed rescue on our behalf.
Sadly, that has not been the case in the two most recent pirate dramas. Captain Richard Phillips, the sole remaining hostage from the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, is now at the centre of armed stand-off between the US navy and his pirate captors. Meanwhile, the France's military operation to free the five French yachters ended in the death of the boat's captain, Florent Lemacon, 28, who was killed along with two pirates. He leaves wife and three-year-old son.
During the tougher moments of my own captivity, I sometimes hoped that a similar such operation might be done to free us, although I equally feared the risk of bloodshed that might follow, be it my own or anybody else's. When pondered for real, the mere thought that somebody might die because of you - even if it is a kidnapper - looks like a hard one to live with.
The death of the French sailor is the first time, to my knowledge, that a hostage of Somali pirates has been killed. Mostly they have been at pains to treat their hostages well, knowing that a businesslike approach makes it all the more tempting for ship owners to resolve things by ransom than by force. Indeed, piracy is currently Somalia's only real booming industry. Up to 2.000 pirates are now believed to be sailing forth from its lawless coastline, carrying out anything up to half a dozen attacks per week and earning an estimated $30 million in ransoms last year alone. They operate mainly along a traditional clan basis - the system of close family loyalties that has made Somalia all but ungovernable as a nation, but which provides a perfect social template for crime Mafias.
The simple modus operandi of modern day piracy also suits them well. Besides a couple of motor launches, all that is needed is a few Kalashnikovs and perhaps a rocket propelled grenade launcher, weapons easily available in a country wracked by civil war. Even the sailing expertise required is limited. Most pirates steer these days not by the stars, but by hand-held mobile GPS systems - the nautical answer to the satnav - allowing them to range far out to sea without getting lost. Otherwise, little, prior planning is needed: the Gulf of Aden is so packed with shipping that targets can simply be chosen at random.
The Maersk Alabama, which originally had 21 American sailors on board, shows how much potential there is for major disaster. US television networks are treating it as a tale of all-American heroism, focusing on how the ship's crew managed first to take one of their attackers prisoner, and how Capt Phillips then selflessly volunteered for a hostage-swap. They could so easily, however, be reporting a tale of all-American tragedy. Had the pirates got the sailors onto the Somali mainland, it could have been the worst US hostage crisis since the storming of the American Embassy in 1979. There are, after all, plenty of Somalis who'd have been willing to pay the pirates good money for their catch - not least the hardline al shebab Islamist movement, whose alleged links to al Qaeda have seen them targeted by US missiles.
Such a crisis might, however, have proved a timely wake-up call, just as 9-11 was about Afghanistan. Somalia has now been 18 years without a government, and has slipped into warlordism and criminal violence unheard of anywhere else. As a bitter Somali joke puts it, the warlords only went into robbing foreigners at sea because there was nothing left to rob from their own people on land.
Indeed, many pirate recruits have literally nothing left to lose in life. For them, being arrested and caught by the international piracy force is little deterrent. At least they will get three square meals a day. If really lucky, they may get taken to a European jail, where they will have a chance of applying for asylum upon release. One of my own captors told me once how he'd tried to flee to Europe after his parents had been murdered, travelling thousands of miles to Libya and then in an overladen people smuggling boat to Greece, only to then be deported home again. As long as Somalia is a nation where people are tempted to resort to such desperate measures, buccaneering is likely to remain a promising career option.
Colin Freeman will talk about his experiences as a pirate hostage on BBC Radio 4's On the Ropes this Tuesday at 9am.