Nairobi — The Gulf of Aden is, perhaps, the most strategic water channel connecting the Western commercial world with its eastern African and Asian counterparts. It is estimated that 30,000 vessels sail through the Suez Canal annually.
While in 2005 there were 35 pirate attacks in the region, the period between 2005 and 2011 witnessed a sharp increase to about 16,000 attacks.
The total ransom has also increased to fabulous amounts. For instance, in 2005 the pirates received $50,000, in 2007 it rose to $3.4 million, and in 2010 it was $5.4 million.
The piracy shareholders include Somali businessmen living in Yemen, Dubai and Kenya. The pirates are usually funded by clan and militia leaders -- the derided 'warlords'.
Below the top leadership are the supporting staff and the technical people who use satellite telephones and radar to monitor the movements of the ships -- slow-moving and low-sized vessels. The support staff supply fuel and other material and provide banking and legal services.
Their business model is defined largely by rational choice, which involves minimising costs and maximising benefit by trying not to kill people, but holding them as baits.
Pirates are generally recruited from the poorly educated and unemployed lot looking for quick money to finance plans such as marriage or emigration. Once they accomplish their mission, they leave Somalia and invest in countries such as Kenya.
Historically, the attacks commenced in the early 1990s with armed local fishermen extorting what they referred to as "license money" from foreign trawlers entering Somalia's unpatrolled, but tuna-rich waters.
Other reasons for piracy include the depositing of toxic waste on Somalia waters by foreign countries.
Others have alluded to criminal gangs such as the "Somali Marines," the "Marka Factions," and the "Somali Volunteer Coastal Guards."
A US journal, Military Technology, reported that by 2008, the pirates had expanded their scope to the waters of the Gulf of Aden and collected $30 million in ransom that year alone.
The rise of piracy has affected American, European and Asian commercial activities within the region. With about 80 per cent of the world trade still transacted on sea, about 14 Western and Asian countries have sent naval vessels to the gulf.
The increase of piracy has been felt in Kenya with the courts being overwhelmed by the large number of the Somali pirate cases. Militia groups that benefit from the illicit business of money laundering, such as Al Shabaab, have threatened retaliation against Kenya.
The rise of Al Shaabab, its link to piracy and money laundering have compelled the US, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to cooperate on counter-terrorism programs.
The writer teaches history at Missouri State University in the US. hanningtonOchwada@missouristate.edu