NAIROBI, Kenya — With a Russian frigate closing in and a half-dozen U.S. warships within shouting distance, the pirates holding a tanker off Somalia's coast might appear to have no other choice than to wave the white flag.
But that's not how it works in Somalia, a failed state where a quarter of children die before they turn 5, where anybody with a gun controls the streets and where every public institution has crumbled.
The 11-day standoff aboard the Ukrainian MV Faina begs the question: How can a bunch of criminals from one of the poorest and most wretched countries on Earth face off with some of the world's richest and well-armed superpowers?
"They have enough guns to fight for another 20 years," said Ted Dagne, a Somalia analyst in Washington. "And there is no way to win a battle when the other side is in a suicidal mind set."
In Somalia, pirates are better-funded, better-organized and better-armed than one might imagine in a country that has been in tatters for nearly two decades. They have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government — some pirates even promise to put ransom money toward building roads and schools.
With most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered the biggest economy in Somalia. Pirates rarely hurt their hostages, instead holding out for a huge payday.
Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said hostage-taking is the key to the pirates' success against any military muscle looming from the United States and Russia.
"Once you have a crew at gunpoint, you can hold six U.S. naval warships at bay and they don't have a whole lot of options except to wait it out," Cooke said.
Piracy in Somalia is nothing new, as bandits have stalked the seas for years. But this year's surge in attacks — nearly 30 so far — has prompted an unprecedented international response.
The United States has been leading international patrols to combat piracy along Somalia's unruly 1,880-mile coast, the longest in Africa and near key shipping routes. In June, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that would allow countries to chase and arrest pirates after attacks increased this year.
But still, the attacks continue. Dagne said that unless the roots of the problem are solved — poverty, disease, violence — piracy will only flourish.
"You have a population that is frustrated, alienated, angry and hopeless," Dagne said. "This generation of Somalis grew up surrounded by abject poverty and violence."