The brazen hijacking of merchant ships and yachts by Somali pirates has forced the world to take notice of a country that’s been in a violent downward spiral for decades. Is there any hope for Somalia?

What is the situation in Somalia?
It’s chaos. Somalia, in fact, is only nominally a nation. Some 1.3 million of Somalia’s 9 million citizens are “internally displaced,” living in squalid refugee camps or roaming the country, homeless, searching for food. About 3.2 million Somalis now depend on food rations, fewer than a quarter of its children go to school, and its maternal mortality and illiteracy rates are among the highest in the world. Warlords and armed gangs control much of the country. Since neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, at least 10,000 innocent civilians have been killed. “Somalia is the longest-running instance of complete state collapse in the post-colonial era,” says Somalia expert Prof. Ken Menkhaus of North Carolina’s Davidson College.

Why is it in such a shambles?
The former British colony in the Horn of Africa has not had a functional government since 1991. Two regions in the north, Somaliland and Puntland, have broken away and operate independently, while rival warlords and Islamist factions rule the rest. The Somali government that’s officially recognized by the international community, the Transitional National Government, until recently operated in exile because of the violence. The U.S. supported Ethiopia’s 2006 incursion, which was designed to oust the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist coalition that had taken over much of the country. During its six-month reign, the authoritarian Islamic Courts actually brought more stability to Somalia than it had known for years; many Somalis had welcomed it, just as war-weary Afghans embraced the Taliban in the 1990s. But the U.S. said the Islamists had links to al Qaida and were harboring terrorists responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left 224 dead.

How did the Ethiopian invasion go?
The incursion touched off a guerilla war that killed thousands and drove nearly 1 million people out of Mogadishu, the capital. Amnesty International last year charged Ethiopian forces with a litany of human-rights abuses, including gang rapes, throat-slitting, and eye-gouging—a reign of terror that pushed more Somalis into the Islamist camp. In January, Ethiopia withdrew its troops, having utterly failed in its mission to buttress the transitional government. Many Somalis cheered Ethiopia’s retreat, but the country was left with yet another power vacuum.

Who has filled that vacuum?
Some of the same Islamists who were ousted by the Ethiopians. In fact, the man who once led the Islamic Courts Union, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is now the leader of the U.N.-backed transitional government. He may be the West’s best hope for taming a growing militant Islamic insurgency—which gained traction during the Ethiopian occupation. A radical offshoot of the Islamic Courts called al-Shabab (“the Youth”) is now deemed a major terrorist threat by the U.S., which says Somalia has been attracting a growing number of jihadists from other places. Al-Shabab is considered ruthless even by Islamic terrorist standards. Late last year, the group kidnapped a suspected spy and slowly sawed off his head with a dull knife, videotaping the entire episode.

How do pirates fit into this mess?
The chaos and lawlessness on the waters off Somalia are an extension of the conditions on land. Amid the deprivation and turmoil, piracy is an appealing option for Somalia’s desperately poor fishermen and farmers. Pirate attacks have tripled over the past three years, to an average of more than three a week. The pirates target anything that floats, from private luxury yachts to freighters, and hold crews and cargo ransom. An estimated $100 million was paid in ransoms in 2008. “All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you’re millionaires,” says Abdullahi Omar Qawden, a former captain in Somalia’s long defunct navy. After the attack last month on an American ship that ended with a dramatic Navy rescue of the captain, the U.S. and other nations stepped up their patrols of the vast shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. Even so, since that incident pirates have seized several more ships with dozens of hostages.

Are the pirates allied with Islamic extremists?
Not actively. They appear to have no agenda other than making money. But the pirates do pay a share of what they make to Islamic forces that control some of the coastal havens from which they operate. “Government officials, warlords, and Islamists are all getting their share,” says Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers Assistance Program, a shipping trade group. Most international observers say that if Somalia is going to be saved, the solution is going to have to come from Somalis, perhaps in the form of a Sunni Awakening­–type movement led by more moderate elements. Past efforts at international intervention have failed, from U.N. peacekeeping missions to the American assault on a Mogadishu warlord in 1993, made famous in Black Hawk Down. Until some effective central government emerges, Somalia will remain a land of desperate poverty, violence, and a Darwinian struggle for survival. “We need doctors. We need food. We need shelter,” says refugee camp doctor Hawa Abdi. “But for that, we need peace.”

Somalia’s ruling class
Thanks to the thriving piracy trade, all along Somalia’s craggy coast once-quiet fishing villages are being transformed into Mafia-style dens of greed and vice. In the new social pecking order, the pirates are on top. Flush with cash, they are building palatial homes next to tin-roof shanties, drive the biggest cars, and, in a polygamous culture, claim the most wives. The village of Eyl is now lined with new buildings and filled with Land Cruisers, laptops, and global positioning devices. An entire industry has grown up around the pirates, with restaurants to feed the kidnapped crews who, as potential trading assets, must be cared for. Prostitution is also thriving. In the tiny coastal village of Hobyo, all but four of the town’s 80 fishing boats are now being used for hijacking. “When I see the men sharing the money, I feel envy,” says 11-year-old Hassan Ali, as he plays in the water near a hijacked Greek chemical tanker. “I pray that piracy will not end before I become a man.”