Motherships have been an important asset for Somali pirates for several years, and originally were normally large skiffs, dhows or fishing trawlers. However, in recent months the use of hijacked merchant ships as motherships appears to have been adopted as standard practice. This is an important and dangerous development and merchant fleets need to be aware of this and increase their preparedness.

The MV Izumi was used as a mothership in attacks on the MV Torm Kansas near Pemba Island, off East Africa, and then, on 6th November 2010, on the EU NAVFOR Spanish warship ESPS Infanta Christina, which was escorting an African Union supply ship Petra 1. The Spanish warship responded to fire from the MV Izumi by firing “warning shots”, rather than using direct fire, because hostages were aboard the vessel. The MV Izumi was also used as a mothership in the middle of December 2010, operating in the Somali Basin about 60° East.

By the end of 2010 it had become obvious that the Somalis had learnt from the failure of the ESPS Infanta Christina to stop the MV Izumi and they appear to have concluded that whereas Somali-manned fishing trawlers and dhows, when used as motherships can be easily taken or sunk by international naval forces, that larger ships represent a totally different problem for the navies of the world.

Firstly, the rules of engagement of most navies preclude firing on a ship which contains hostages, and secondly where a ship, like the MT Motivator, with a cargo of lubrication oil, is used, then there could be serious environmental consequences if it were to be sunk or damaged; the use of an LPG carrier, such as MV York, as a mothership carries particular risks, given the nature of its cargo. There must be other advantages, a large merchant ship can carry far more attack skiffs and pirates than a dhow, the accommodation is relatively comfortable and the vessel will have a full suite of navigation and radio aids, not to mention an effective radar. Other advantages are that a separate team of guards do not have to be recruited to keep an eye on the hostage crew, and the sight of the vessel patrolling the high seas puts additional pressure on an owner reluctant to part with a ransom. There are some cases where a vessel appears to go to sea purely for this reason, as happened with the South Korean VLCC MV Samho Dream, before its release in November 2010. A VLCC is hardly the ideal mothership.

I expect that this development will become normal policy; it will enable pirate groups to put to sea at any time of the year, without bothering about the monsoon seasons and seek calmer areas of sea even further from the Somali coast, in this way the areas of operations are likely to be extended well south of the equator and even east of Sri Lanka. It also has the advantage of reducing the need for pirate havens (although a support base is essential) and as a result we may see this form of hostage-taking adopted off other coasts, in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Guinea, which have lacked secure “pirate-havens”. In this way the Somali pirates will also reduce their vulnerability to attacks from Al-Shabaab, and other Islamist groups. In May 2010 pirates abandoned their base at Xarardheere in haste, after Hizbul Islam attacked the town; witnesses reported that, “several pirate bosses raced out of town in luxury four-by-four trucks, with TVs packed in the back and mattresses strapped on top”. There are of course problems, but these are essentially logistical; the need to ensure that these merchant ships have enough fuel, food and water (and of course khat) on board. I expect that we could even see the hijacking of bunkering tankers in order to refuel these new motherships.

On one day, 30th December 2010, NATO reported that the Singapore-flagged LPG carrier MV York was being used as a mothership (position: 00°38 N 063°59 E course 145. Speed 2.2 knots), as were the Panamanian-flagged 24,105 dwt chemical tanker MV Hannibal II (position: 12°38N 059°00E course 310°, speed 12 knots), the fishing boat Shiuh Fu No.1 (position: 13 27S 053 03E. course 102°, speed 9.1 knots ) and Panama-flagged 72,825 dwt tanker MV Polar (position: 00 50N 050 09E, course 342 speed 13.4 knots.). In addition the 13,065 dwt Marshall Islands flagged chemical tanker, MT Motivator had acted as mothership during the hijacking of the MV Ems River on the 27-28th December 2010, and the 20,170 dwt Panamanian-flagged MV Izumi had continued its patrols into the Arabian Sea, NATO having reported it at 06°30 N – 052°18E, on a course of 245° with a speed of 13 knots, on Christmas Eve.

So, at the end of 2010, it was known that five sizable merchant ships and one fishing boat were at sea, acting as motherships. In addition, various dhows and larger skiffs were deployed in the same role. These merchant ships/motherships (let’s call them Large Pirate Support Vessels or “LPSVs”) represent a much greater threat to shipping than the earlier class of motherships and one of the key tasks of EU NAVFOR and the other international naval forces must be to track their whereabouts at all times. However, EU NAVFOR rarely has effective long-range maritime patrol aircraft available for this task, and such assets are essential if piracy is to be effectively monitored and contained.

The decision of the UK government in the summer of 2010 to abandon the procurement of the Nimrod MRA.4 reconnaissance aircraft now looks increasingly to have been an act of sheer folly, as this was precisely the type of aircraft that is desperately needed to control Somali piracy. With the introduction of the LPSVs Somali piracy has entered into a new and much more dangerous phase.