By 2008, piracy had grown into a $50 million per year industry in the country. In 2009, the year of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, pirates carried out 214 attacks, leading to 47 hijackings. By 2011 it was up to 237, though the number of successful hijackings decreased.
But that year also marked a turning point with the establishment of Combined Task Force 151, the multinational naval unit tasked with protecting shipping from piracy off the Somali coast. If nothing else, “Captain Phillips” gives a good sense of the firepower mismatch between western naval vessels and the pirates they were sent to hunt.
While initially met with skepticism, the task force, combined with improved security onboard ships – many merchant vessels now carry armed military contractors on board when passing through – does seem to have had an impact. The improving security situation on land in Somalia also likely played a role.
The number of attacks plummeted in 2012, and so far this year, there have been only 10 reported attacks by Somali pirates and two hijackings. In an ironic development, some pirates have now gone into a new line of business, protecting illegal fishing boats.
This isn’t to say that the problem of piracy has gone away. In fact, the number of attacks off Somalia are now exceeded by attacks off the coast of West Africa, particularly in the oil rich Gulf of Guinea. But the situation where Richard Phillips sailed has changed drastically.
“Captain Phillips” may feel particularly current given the events of the past week, but it’s more of a historical document than audiences are likely to realize.
Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.