NAIROBI • Are the pirates back? After years of quiet seas, undisturbed voyages and no major attacks, Somali pirates have waylaid four ships in the past month, raising fears that the menace has returned to the Indian Ocean.
A Pakistani-owned cargo vessel carrying food was hijacked off the coast of central Somalia, Somali officials said on Tuesday, just days after an Indian cargo ship was commandeered and dragged to an infamous pirate den.
In the past, pirates hit just about anything that floated: yachts, freighters, dhows, sailboats, mammoth oil tankers - even a US naval ship, by mistake. But the piracy heydays were thought to be over.
A number of factors have driven the resurgence, analysts said, including drought, famine, corruption, a surge of smuggled weapons and the influence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
All of the recent attacks, including the hijacking of an oil tanker last month, are believed to have been carried out by buccaneers from central Somalia or Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in north-eastern Somalia.
From 2008 to 2012, there were hundreds of attacks, and the pirates, and their financiers, made a fortune in ransoms. Countless pirates also drowned.
As the years passed, the shipping companies wised up. They invested heavily in hiring armed guards, who showed no hesitation in blasting the fibreglass skiffs out of the water.
A coalition of foreign navies beefed up patrols. Aid groups came up with alternatives for the thousands of youth who had become pirates. Fishery projects were started, and training too. The higher risk and new job opportunities drew people - and financing - away from the buccaneering business.
But those programmes may have been a victim of their own success, said Mr Mohamed Mubarak, who runs a Somali anti-graft organisation, Marqaati, which means "witness". After years of declining attacks, resources were moved away from patrolling Somalia's coast.
Instead, those funds were used to battle other threats, including ISIS, which recently invaded coastal towns in Puntland.
Somali officials said the Indian cargo ship seized last week is being held for ransom in the El Hur area of central Somalia, south of the Puntland border, a pirate locale.
Last month, pirates hijacked an oil tanker and temporarily held its Sri Lankan crew. Later that month, pirates attacked a large fishing vessel, planning to use it as a floating base to hijack even bigger ships.
After several stingy rainy seasons, Somalia is on the verge of famine, with hundreds of thousands of people rapidly running out of food.
"Hunger is pushing people into crime," Mr Mubarak said.
At the end of the day, analysts said, Somali piracy is a business decision. Rich merchants must have decided that after years of being a money-losing operation, there were riches to made again in high seas piracy.