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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, cigarettes. (Cuss said pirates were becoming more sophisticated and in the last two months have, for the first time, begun launching nighttime attacks, possibly indicating pirates have obtained night-vision goggles).

U.S. officials have found no direct ties between East African pirates and terror groups, but the illegal trade is believed backed by an international network of Somali expatriates who offer funds, equipment and information in exchange for a cut of ransoms.

The House memo said Somali buccaneers operate in five well-organized groups, drawing members from large clans, which are extended family networks. Cuss said the industry is controlled by “warlords and criminal gangs who recruit local fishermen and take a lion’s share of the profits.”

Andrew Mwangura of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program described the pirates as “desperate people taking desperate measures to earn a living.”

Today, they number around 1,500, up from around 100 five to seven years ago, Mwangura said.

“They’re earning a lot of money and everyone wants to join,” Mwangura said. “They’re getting new recruits every day.”

On the ground in Somalia, some pirates are seen as “flamboyant middle aged men,” said Mahad Shiekh Madar, a car salesman living in the northeastern port town of Bossaso on the tip of Africa’s horn. “They always travel in beautiful four-wheel-drive luxury cars and look like people who are working for a big business company.”

Abdulahi Salad, a 43-year-old former pirate in the central coastal village of Gaan, said pirates were “different from the ordinary gunmen in Somalia. They are not thin, and they have bright faces and are always happy.”

Indeed, they are often regaled for bringing wads of cash into impoverished communities.

A local elder in Gaan, Haji Muqtar Ahmed, said “being a pirate is not shame … it is believed to be a noble profession.”

Ahmed said people there used to make a living fishing, “but now the only livelihood they have is the income from the piracy.”

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Associated Press Writers Tom Maliti and Malkhadir Muhumed in Nairobi and Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.