Hidden War Between American Mercenaries, Somali Sailors

How real U.S. merchant ship captains prepare for the threat of being boarded by pirates.
3:00 | 10/11/13

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Transcript for Hidden War Between American Mercenaries, Somali Sailors
As you watch tom hanks fighting pirates this weekend from the climate controlled safety of your local multiplex it could be easy to forget there's a real life war going on right now on the open seas between actual pirates and the american mercenaries making big bucks to fight them off. "Nightline" newest anchor dan harris explains. Reporter: Tonight in multiplexs across america, movie goers are taking in the story of captain phillips. We have been boarded by four armed pirates. Reporter: Tom hanks doing his best new england accent as he plays the man from vermont whose commercial ship was attacked by somali pirates in the middle of the indian ocean. But some are seething at this portrayal. They're suing the shipping line arguing that phillips ignored warnings to stay at least 600 miles away from the coast of somalia. The maersk alabama was only 250 miles away. In court documents members of the crew claim they were knowingly, intentionally and willfully sent into an area with pirates because the routes saved the company money. The movie tells a highly fictionalized version of what happened on the boat. To make him into a hero for driving this boat and men into pirate infested water is the real injustice here. Reporter: The company called it meritless and here's how captain phillips defended himself. It really didn't matter. It is where ever the pirates were was the problem. If you don't want to deal with pirates, get another job. Reporter: The movie doesn't address this controversy but what is not controversial is somalia is a place of famine, poverty and lawlessness. A perfect breeding ground for piracy as I saw firsthand. All you need is 30 seconds on the ground here to see how inhospitable this terrain is to any sort of life. Reporter: This is the home base of the terror group that carried out the recent mall massacre in kenya. If you look around, the poverty is grinding, it's epic and the job opportunities nonexistent. That's why young men here turn to piracy. You get a fascinating look at what it's like when pirates take over a commercial ship. Money. Reporter: As they await their ransom money they settle in cooking in the gally and sleeping in the crew's beds but they're not able this peaceful. In 2011 pirates seized a yacht piloted by four americans and murdered them. To defend themselves, shipping companies are now spending close to $1 billion on private guards waging a hidden mercenary war against pirates. All of this corporate cash is attracting security firms from all over the world with varying levels of discipline. Check out this music video allegedly made by russian marines. They blow it up and then do target practice on it. Just stand by. Reporter: Some of the controversy involved american firms. Look at this video of a small boat heading toward this american shipping vessel. The team leader orders a warning shot. Go ahead, warning shot. Reporter: But look at what happens instead, a massive blast of gunfire. The pirate ship, it's driver perhaps hit or killed, crashes into the side of the ship. So as you watch this you believe your guys did the right thing at every step. Absolutely. Reporter: The ceo of trident security says what you can't see on this now infamous video tape is as soon as his men fired warning shots, the pirates fired back. If somebody was to look at that and make a blind statement of this is indiscriminate killing, they don't know what's going on. Reporter: He can see some security companies may need to be reigned in. It's a 556 weapon. That's what we use for all teams out there. Reporter: But he points out and the state department confirms there have been no successful pirate attacks on ships protected by armed guards. Something he says may have prevented the attack on the maersk alabama where there are no such guards. We have been boarded by armed pirates. Reporter: For nightline, this is dan harris in new york.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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