The pirate standoff with the U.S. Navy has burned Somalia into the West's consciousness as a base for lawlessness and terror, but the hostage crisis illuminates a potentially dangerous picture confronting a far greater area.
Much of the Horn of Africa, which is made up of six countries covering roughly half the area of the United States, is beset by a rare set of disadvantages that makes it ripe for chaos. Poverty, hunger, corruption and lawlessness has made the region a haven not only for pirates, but for arms smugglers and Islamic insurgents.
"The situation in the Horn is the most explosive on the continent," said Francois Grignon, head of the Africa program for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.
Home to about 165 million people, the six countries that make up the Horn — Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Djibouti — are seen by many as the next possible front in the war on terrorism.
The footpaths, rutted roads and steamy coastal dens along the Horn may seem a world away to many in the West — but the conflicts that fester here have hit home before.
No effective government since 1992
Americans have been targeted in the region in the past, although it is not clear if the pirates who launched a failed effort to capture the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday knew they were attacking an American ship. The U.S. was negotiating with the pirates Friday for the ship's American captain, the only hostage after the crew overpowered the bandits.
U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were the targets of deadly twin bombings by al-Qaida in 1998. An Israeli airliner and hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, were targeted by terrorists in 2002.
The attacks emanated from neighboring Somalia, which has had no effective central government since 1992 and has a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement. And in 2006, Kenyan police caught a smuggler trying to bring in an anti-aircraft missile.
The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden declared his support for Islamic radicals there. Bin Laden himself has ties to the Horn, having once lived in Sudan.
The U.S. has stationed 1,800 troops in Djibouti to keep terror networks in the Horn of Africa in check. The country, which has close ties to the West, is located at a strategic point where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean.
Region ripe for fundamentalism
The Horn of Africa is notorious for corrupt governments, porous borders, widespread poverty and discontented populations, creating a region ripe for Islamic fundamentalism.
When hijackings spiked off the coast of Somalia last year, counterterrorism officials pressed for any evidence that the country's extremist factions, or even al-Qaida militants operating in East Africa, might be using piracy to fund their violence. But the complicated clan structure and Somalia's ungoverned black market — there is no functioning banking system — have made it difficult to trace the cash transactions.
No direct ties between pirates, terror groups
U.S. officials have found no direct ties between East African pirates and terrorist groups. But piracy is believed to be backed by an international network that runs from the Horn of Africa to as far as North America. It is made up primarily of Somali expatriates who offer funds, equipment and information in exchange for a cut of the ransoms, according to researchers, officials and members of the racket. With help from the network, Somali pirates brought in at least $80 million last year.
Ethnic Somalis are the common denominator in the Horn of Africa, and their large presence in neighboring countries has long been a source of conflict. In the mid-1970s, then Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre advocated expanding the country's borders to unite all Somali-speaking people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Despite Somalia's disastrous and short-lived invasion of Ethiopia in 1977 and political anarchy since 1992, Somali nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists still advocate this Greater Somalia. An ethnic-Somali insurgency continues in eastern Ethiopia. And many Somalis were angered when Ethiopia sent troops at the request of Somalia's weak transitional government to oust Islamists who controlled the capital at the end of 2006 and were expanding their influence.
Attacks could lead to higher prices
The Islamists' ascent was marked by a dramatic decline in piracy. The Ethiopians withdrew in January as part of an intricate U.N.-mediated peace deal.
Analysts are warning that the increasingly brazen piracy and its toll on shipping companies is going to lead to higher prices for commodities headed to the West. In addition, more than 10 percent of the world's petroleum supply is shipped past Somalia and into Gulf of Aden, the shortest route between Asia and Europe.
Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London, said piracy is now becoming a global issue because the pirates are targeting foreign ships farther afield from Somalia, in part to avoid international naval forces stationed in the Gulf of Aden.
"The worrying issue is that what was originally a Somali problem has spilled over," Mukundan said. "If you look at what is available, in Somalia itself, nothing can be done. There is no government. It is a failed state."
As for help from nearby, he said: "The neighboring countries don't have the resources."