NAIROBI, Kenya - For young Somalis, piracy offers a life of adventure and money: At sea, they are armed with automatic weapons, rockets and grenades. On land, they are a cross between a town official and a gangster rapper -- with grand houses, luxury cars and beautiful wives.
Piracy is a lucrative business in Somalia, a country with no central government, no banks and fewmerit-based opportunities because of an entrenched clan system.
For Somali men such as those who hijacked an American cargo ship, banditry at sea offers powerand potential prosperity in a land so bleak that life expectancy is just 46 years and a quarter ofchildren die before they reach 5.
Pirates are attracted by Somalia's lawlessness and its strategic location. The Gulf of Aden is one ofthe world's busiest waterways, with 20,000 merchant ships passing through yearly on their way toand from the Suez Canal. Countless fishing boats drop anchor in search of tuna, snapper andbarracuda, which are plentiful in Somali waters.
"Years ago, our life depended on fishing, but now we have a lot of money. We have luxury cars,beautiful houses and everything we want in our coastal village," said Salah Haji Bahdon, whoidentified himself as a pirate in a phone interview with The Associated Press from the community ofEyl in a region where many hijacked ships are anchored while pirates negotiate ransoms.
Bahdon added, "It is like a small paradise where people are oblivious of the problems going on inthe other corners of Somalia." In 2008, pirates seized 42 vessels off the country's 1,900-mile coastline,the longest in Africa.
Since January, pirates have staged 66 attacks, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crewmembers as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based inKuala Lumpur.
Foreign governments have condemned the seafaring robbers, but Somalis say they are grateful forthe growth pirates bring to port towns.
Piracy has improved the economy somewhat around Eyl, in the northern Puntland region.
Commerce has increased because the pirates bring cash to spend. The pirates have promised to buildnew schools and better roads, but they have yet to deliver on those projects.
The AP called villagers in Eyl who had provided reliable information in the past, and theyindependently verified that Bahdon and two other men were pirates. The villagers also put an APreporter in touch with the men.
One of the men insisted his pirate gang was not merely a band of ruffians, but a well-organized,business-minded group that also had philanthropic concerns.
"We have leaders, investors, young people who go to the sea for hunting ships and also negotiatorsin many areas," said the man, who identified himself only as Madobe and said he was in his 20s. He said pirates also have "very reliable support from the people on the ground." And, he added, thepirates give a share of their ransom money to local elders, militia commanders and politicians tocurb any threats.
Last year, pirates made off with up to $80 million in ransom money, said Roger Middleton, a piracyexpert at the London-based think-tank Chatham House. Those hauls included payment for a Saudioil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded with military tanks, both of which were later released.
Pirates typically wear fatigues and operate from speedboats equipped with satellite phones andGPS equipment. They are often armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rockets and various typesof grenades.
But the heavy armaments have not spared them from failure.
One attempted attack last year fell short when the pirates' ladder was not long enough to scale theside of a frigate they were trying to board.
In March, pirates mistook a German military supply ship for a commercial ship and launched anattack. They were chased down and seven pirates were captured by international forces.
There are several known pirate groups in Somalia. One is based in the southern port town ofKismayo, which is controlled by Islamic insurgents.
Another prominent group is based in the northern Puntland region, and their ties to the insurgencyare thought to be tenuous.
Middleton said the main relationship between pirates and the insurgency is financial, and they seetheir hostages as only one thing: a source of cash.