If piracy hasn't been around as long as wood has floated -- to use the old-salt expression -- certainly it has existed as long there here has been such a thing as sea-going trade between nations, empires, city-states, tribes. It's perhaps slightly younger than prostitution
But the 21st century form practiced by the Somalis, with its hijack-hostage-ransom arithmetic, is a true innovation. It is something new in the piracy field -- in modern times, at least. (A band of roving seafarers from a mostly forgotten tribe of the eastern Mediterranean once held Julius Caesar hostage, famously, with the object of extorting a ransom. According to Plutarch, they struck a deal for 50 gold talents; Caesar then sent the Roman armada to hunt down his captors, which they did. And the Barbary pirates -- to which Somali's bandits are most often compared, for obvious geographic and religious reasons -- would sometimes take tribute in return for the release of certain captured ships, but their main line was out-and-out loot and plunder.)
And it works: Somalia's pirate gangs have devised a money-extortion scheme that the world's navies, with all their shocking firepower, are nearly powerless against. The warships can't get too close, for fear of inciting violence that would harm the crews. The evidence suggests that the pirates, for their part, driven by self-interest, don't wish to do violence to the crews, either -- because if they did, they'd provide justification to the naval admirals nearby to send in the commandos and attack helicopters.
(The death toll aboard Somali-pirate-seized ships has remained light, at least among reported incidents. Over the last two years, two crew members have died: a captain killed by gunfire (possibly stray) during a 2009 attack; and the captain of the
, felled by a heart attack at some point during his ordeal.)
The failed state makes it all go. The pirate gangs, said to be affiliated with familial clans led by warlords, are based largely in two semi-autonomous regions in the northeastern part of the country, called Puntland and Galguduud. Puntland especially is the "perfect environment" for the pursuit of piracy. The region remains chaotic enough for a brigand to live free from much in the way of laws -- though Puntland's court system, such as it is, has prosecuted and jailed pirates -- but not nearly as chaotic as Mogadishu and the southern portion of the country, where heavily armed clans and Islamic fundamentalists fight their nightmare conflict.