The attack on the Maersk Alabama was the first on a US vessel since the days of the Barbary Wars 200 years ago, but it's nothing new in the area.
In 1801, Tripoli's ambassador told Thomas Jefferson that he believed it was fully appropriate for Muslim sailors to attack Christian ships. During this "money jihad", pirates from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya hijacked European and American ships and ransomed their crews. The area's rulers got a cut; it wasn't too different from the way the English crown supported privateers against the Spanish as they fought for colonies and trade worldwide. Many western governments started paying tribute to the Barbary princes to ward off such attacks. It was not until the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars that decisive and concerted action by the U.K., Netherlands and United States brought an end to the Barbary depredations.
This time around, shipping companies have been paying ransomsbut governments seem unlikely to support this or pay tribute. As piracy continues to fester, the question is what action world powers will takewhether militarily or diplomaticallyto ameliorate the conditions that make piracy such an attractive option for young Somalis.