In the Indian Ocean, home to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, a war rages between Somali pirates, who have attacked 800 ships and taken 3,400 hostages in the past four years, and private security firms, some run by Americans, that are deploying an increasing number of heavily armed guards aboard those ships.
For now, at least, the security firms and their armed guards appear to be winning the war -- and earning millions.
Since 2008, pirates operating off East Africa have successfully hijacked 170 ships, costing the global economy as much as $12 billion per year, killing dozens of hostages and holding the ships and their crews for ransoms of up to $9.5 million. At least 11 vessels and 188 hostages are still being held by pirates, and a hostage held for two years was executed just a week ago when his ship's owners failed to pay his ransom quickly enough.
However, in the past two years, the pirates have run into trouble. While the number of attempted pirate attacks peaked in 2011, according to the International Maritime Bureau, the number of successful attacks began to fall, from 49 ships in 2010 to 28 ships in 2011. This year, the number of attempts has plunged as well. The first six months of 2012 saw a 60 percent reduction in attacks, down to 69 incidents from 163 incidents during the same period in 2011.
In fact, since June, there has not been one successful pirate attack in the waters off East Africa, marking the longest stretch of peaceful transit through the region since piracy began to mount a decade ago .
The reasons, according to observers, are the increased presence of international naval vessels -- and the stepped-up use of armed guards, who have successfully rebuffed every attack launched against them.
"To date," said Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro, "not a single ship with privately contracted armed security personnel aboard has been pirated. Not one."
Shipping companies are now spending close to $1 billion dollars per year on private armed guards, up from a mere blip in 2008, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of Colorado-based non-profit One Earth Future Foundation. About 50 percent of commercial ships transiting across the Indian Ocean now have armed guards.
With so much money to be made, companies from all over the world, including the United States, are rushing into the anti-piracy business, often drawing from the ranks of the military's special forces. But the use of armed guards is not without controversy, with critics questioning the introduction of yet more weaponry into an already violent region.
About a dozen of the private security firms now active in the region are American, including Trident Group, Inc., a Virginia Beach-based company named after the Navy SEAL symbol.
In a video shot by Trident on March 25, 2011, Somali pirates are seen racing across the surface of the Indian Ocean to the Avocet, an American shipping vessel. As the pirates approach, Trident armed guards are told to fire warning shots. A massive burst of gunfire erupts. The skiff, its driver perhaps hit or killed, crashes into the side of the Avocet. A second skiff approaches the ship, and the firing continues. By the time the incident ends, an unknown number of pirates may have been injured or killed.