Image: Fighters of the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement
Stuart Price  /  AFP/Getty Images
Fighters of the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement drive their armored battle wagon in October 2007 at an unknown location on the Sudan-Chad border in northwest Darfur.
updated 3/18/2009 10:06:12 AM ET 2009-03-18T14:06:12

Chugging through the Gulf of Aden this past September, the crew of a Ukrainian freighter fell victim to an increasingly common predicament: a pirate attack.

Contemporary corsairs from Somalia boarded the MV Faina and held the crew and its cargo — 33 Russian-made tanks — for ransom. After a five-month standoff, the raiders received a payment of $3.2 million and fled. A curiously small sum for such a potent payload, but the pirates didn't have much choice: Somalia lacks the basic infrastructure needed to unload the tanks.

Piracy is just one of the many hazards in Somalia, which tops this year's list of the world's most dangerous countries. Somalia has gained notoriety as a modern-day Tortuga thanks to pirates who have captured 42 ships over the past year, but conditions inland remain just as chaotic. Somalia has seen 14 different governments since 1994 and, despite the installation of a new government in February, warlords and fundamentalist militias still rule much of the country.

"Somalia is really a tabula rasa," says Ed Daly, acting vice president of intelligence operations at iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, a Maryland-based risk-assessment firm. "It's got nothing."

Behind the numbers
To determine the world's most dangerous countries, we combined rankings provided by iJet and fellow risk-assessment firm Control Risks, giving equal weight to each set of data. Both firms compiled their rankings by evaluating countries by categories including crime rate, police protection, civil unrest, terrorism risk, kidnapping threat and geopolitical stability.

In the case of a tie, we assigned the higher spot to the nation with a more recent travel alert on the U.S. State Department's watch list. We eliminated any country that didn't appear on at least two of these three lists.

Somalia is the worst of a trio of failed states that tower over the rest of the world's countries in terms of danger and dysfunction. The mountainous warzone of Afghanistan and the desert battlefield of Iraq round out the top three.

"The top three are clearly in a league of their own," says Adam Strangfeld, research director at Control Risks. "They are without a doubt the most dangerous countries in the world. After that, there's a bit of a gap. What characterizes the top three is that the geographical spread is much greater."

The remainder of the list is disproportionately dominated by African nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, the latter of which is on anything but a road to improvement (an arrest warrant was issued March 4 for Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity). These countries are among a slew directly or indirectly mired in a conflict that started in 1998, sometimes called "Africa's World War."

Though hostilities officially ended in 2003, sporadic attacks continue. About 5.4 million people have died in the conflagration, mostly due to disease and starvation.

Many other dangerous countries, such as Pakistan and Yemen, owe their infamy to the lurking menace of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, which thrive in nations with un-policed nooks. The craggy provinces in Pakistan's north are ideal for such activities and are assumed to be the plotting grounds for the dramatic assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad in September 2008, carried out by militant group Fidayeen-e-Islam. Experts at iJet warn that risk will remain high in the former British colony for the foreseeable future while fighting continues between government forces and tribal militants in the northwest.

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And dire danger can even be found a lot closer to home than one might think — iJet ranks Mexico's crime-wracked northern border as a high-risk location, on par with Algeria (though the rest of the country is considered much safer).

Safety and security — for now
What's important to note, however, is how quickly things can change — even for the better. Some former hotspots like Sierra Leone, which would have topped this list just seven years ago due to a grisly civil war, have seen notable improvement.

The safest countries in the world are mostly found in Europe. Small, wealthy nations like Liechtenstein and Luxembourg possess insignificant levels of risk, says Control Risks' Strangfeld. But that doesn't mean the most dangerous countries on our list should look to them as role models.

In fact, even though the 15 most dangerous countries span four continents, they all share one trait: They were once European colonies.

Much of the blame for today's failed states can be laid at the hands of colonial meddlers who carved up faraway lands long ago, lumping bitter rivals together in arbitrarily defined states. The British were the worst offenders of all, with an imperial presence in four of today's five most dangerous countries.

No surprise, then, that after England spent a quarter-century ruling parts of what is now Somalia, the country is overrun with pirates. After all, they learned from the best: Blackbeard, the most famous pirate of all time, was a Brit.

© 2012


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