The battle against piracy begins in Mogadishu

We call them “pirates”, because that is how they most easily translate into Western culture, but the Somali marauders currently terrorising Indian Ocean shipping might better be termed ocean-going shiftas, heirs to a long and uniquely African tradition of banditry.

The term shifta may be unfamiliar, yet it is a key to understanding what is happening off the coast of Somalia, and how it might possibly be resolved. Shifta, derived from the Somali word shúfto, can be translated as bandit or rebel, outlaw or revolutionary, depending on which end of the gun you are on.

In the roiling chaos that is Somalia, the killers and criminals are variously pirates, warlords, kidnappers, fanatics or Islamic insurgents. Most are young, angry men with no prospects, no education and a great deal of heavy weaponry. But all are historically descended from the shiftas who have plundered the Horn of Africa for decades.

The shiftas originated in the 19th century as a sort of local militia in the unruly mountains of north east Africa, but soon developed into freelance outlaws, rustlers and highway robbers, roaming across borders to rob and kill. The British colonial authorities sought to control shifta activity, but the armed bands played an important role in resisting Italian occupation in Ethiopia and Somaliland during the Second World War.

They had a reputation for extreme barbarity. One British officer based in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya in 1942 described the marauding, heavily armed bands of Somali shiftas as “ruthless outlaws who killed for the sake of killing, holding human life cheap if it stood in the way of rape and pillage”. The shiftas, it was said, handed captives over to their womenfolk to be elaborately mutilated before an agonisingly slow death.

The term shifta is still used to describe robber gangs in the remoter rural regions of Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya. The conservationist George Adamson of Born Free fame was killed by Somali shiftas in Kenya in 1989.

But shiftinnet (the role of the shifta) is more complex than mere thievery and thuggery. The term can also denote status, respect and rebellion against unpopular authority. Two 19th-century Ethiopian emperors were originally shiftas. In his book Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm argued that in some instances, outlaws rise above their crimes to become champions of the underdog, rebels articulating the grievances of the dispossessed, robbing the rich to give to the poor.

Shiftinnet has some of this outlaw mystique. Precisely the same is true of the latter-day Somali pirates infesting the seas off East Africa. They, too, follow a code of conduct that precludes harming crewmen, as well as a formula for divvying up the loot within the robber band. In their own communities, they are seen as heroes and breadwinners, a sort of maritime mafia upholding social order while resisting Western power.

Such people are glorified and romanticised when government is weak: Dick Turpin, Billy the Kid, Blackbeard and Robin Hood were functions of violent social dislocation. Just as shiftas have long flourished in the lawless areas in and around Somalia, so the abject failure of the modern state of Somalia has led to the explosion of piracy.

Somalia is now the most dangerous place in the world. This half-starved country has suffered 14 failed governments in two decades. Piracy is the only big industry: the sea-going shiftas made $150million last year. Since February the pirates have attacked 78 ships, hijacked 19 and taken more than 300 hostages from a dozen countries.

The banditry comes with the usual veneer of buccaneer bravado: “We believe in dying for our land,” one pirate declared this week, after the American rescue of a kidnapped freighter captain.

Somali piracy is usually seen as a political and economic problem or even as a military threat to be solved using brute force, but it is also at root a cultural issue, a return to a form of behaviour that is grimly embedded in Somali tradition. Killing a few pirates will have no more effect that the British attempts to stamp out the shiftas of an earlier era.

Rooting out piracy in Somalia means stripping the Robin Hood myth from Somalia's bandit chiefs, pirates and warlords, rebuilding social institutions, re-educating a generation brought up on violence, and providing alternative forms of employment. There will be no peace at sea off Somalia until there is some form of law on land.

For many years the deteriorating situation in Somalia has been largely ignored by the rest of the world: the country is now listed by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian disaster, a hotbed of Islamic extremism, and a throwback to a medieval way of thinking in which brigandage is not merely tolerated, but venerated.

Organised banditry is worming its way into what remains of the Somali state: in some ports, the pirates pay the salaries of the local police.

The life of a Somali pirate, like that of a Somali shifta, is nasty, brutish and frequently short. Pirate vessels are barely seaworthy; many pirates cannot even swim. As always, while a few get rich, the rank-and-file in the criminal enterprise are young, desperate and careless of life, their own included.

Yet it is a mark of how far Somali society has been degraded by years of conflict and international complacency, that such creatures are regarded with both fear and admiration by their compatriots. Barack Obama has pledged to “halt the rise of piracy”.

That cannot be done with guns alone, and will never be achieved until and unless Somalia can finally rid itself of the culture of the gun. Arrivals at Mogadishu airport today must fill out a landing form detailing name, address, and calibre of weapon. Welcome to the brutal, shifting world of the shifta.

Ben Macintyre