They pursue their prey using outboard motors instead of oars and tote rocket-propelled grenades instead of cutlasses. But like their peg-legged predecessors, the pirates of today's headlines--most recently those who hijacked a Japanese cargo ship off the Somali coast on July 20--are economic opportunists exploiting the largely unpatrolled waterways through which 90% of global trade flows.
Pirates have plagued seafarers for millenniums. Homer and Cicero noted incidents involving ancient Greek and Roman mariners, and West Europeans weathered Viking onslaughts during the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, monarchs frustrated by Spain's dominance of the Caribbean commissioned privateers to harass the Spanish fleet--helping to usher in piracy's golden age, when swashbuckling marauders like Edward (Blackbeard) Teach roamed the sun-splashed islands, plundering gold and silver.
Piracy declined in subsequent centuries, thanks to increasingly vigilant militaries and the development of the steam engine. But amid a drop in naval patrols and a boom in international trade following the end of the cold war, it has flourished anew--particularly in narrow choke points such as Asia's Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden, which links the Red and Arabian seas. Buoyed by fast boats, fearsome weaponry and high-tech communications gear, pirates carried off 263 reported heists in 2007--28% of which occurred in the lawless waters off Nigeria and Somalia. With its vast coastline and crippled government, Somalia is especially pirate-infested. Despite a June U.N. resolution that lets naval allies surveil its waters, ships are warned to stay 200 nautical miles from land.