NAIROBI, Kenya — They've been described as "noble heroes" by sympathetic Somalis, denounced as criminals by critics. But the word most used to describe the men holding an American captain off the Horn of Africa is "pirate," conjuring images of sword-wielding Hollywood swashbucklers.
The 21st century reality, though, is a far cry from that. There are no treasure-laden islands or Blackbeards in this part of the world, no wooden schooners flying skull and crossbones flags.
Instead, a vigilante movement that years ago tried to defend Somali shores morphed into full-blown pirate scourge after fishermen on defense stumbled upon an astoundingly lucrative bounty waiting to be had on their doorstep: about 25,000 ships, most unarmed, transiting the Gulf of Aden each year.
Picture ragged Somali fishermen armed with rocket launchers, GPS systems and satellite phones. Picture tiny skiffs cruising the coast of a war-infested nation crawling with gunmen. Picture bandits with sunglasses in worn shirts firing machine guns at cruise ships, scampering aboard captured trawlers with crude ladders.
And most of all, picture ransoms, huge ransoms.
"I think when most people think of pirates, they think of Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean," said security consultant Crispian Cuss of the London-based Olive Group. But these guys are "just fishermen paid to act as pirates by warlords and armed gangs who have taken over a lawless state."
The plight of an American captain, seized from the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama and held by Somali pirates since Wednesday, is only one of the latest examples of a problem that has plagued the region for years.
Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., is believed to be the first U.S. citizen taken by pirates since 1804, when Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur battled the infamous Barbary pirates off the northern coast of what is now Libya, dispatching Marines to the shores of Tripoli.
The modern piracy scourge in the Horn of Africa arose from the ashes of Somalia's government, overthrown in 1991. Since then, Somalia has suffered nearly 20 years of anarchy, chaotically ruled by rival clans backed by pickups mounted with antiaircraft guns. Its nominal government barely controls a few blocks.
With no coast guard to defend its shores, Somalis began complaining that vessels from Asia and Europe were dumping toxic waste in their waters and illegally scooping up red snapper, barracuda and tuna. The rampant illegal fishing began destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen.
According to a memo prepared last month by the staff of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Somali clans began resorting "to armed gangs in an attempt to stop the foreign vessels. Over time, these gangs have evolved into hijacking commercial vessels for ransom as an alternative source of income."
The memo cited one captured pirate as saying pirates only take 30 percent of ransoms — on average $1 million to $2 million per boat. Twenty percent goes to group bosses, 30 percent is spent on bribing local officials, and 20 percent goes for capital investment like guns, ammunition, fuel, food and cigarettes.