"I thought it was an ordinary ship, then I saw two small fast motorboats coming from it toward us," Capt. Ling Xinshen, now safely in Mombasa, Kenya, said in recounting his vessel's seizure by pirates. He and his crew were held for ransom for seven months on the ship by pirates who killed one crew member.
Ling said he never again sighted the mysterious mother ship that loomed up so suddenly the sunny afternoon his ordeal began.
Everyone has a theory about where the mother ships hide. Cmdr. Robert D. Katz of the USS Stout says Somali national waters remain a blind spot for the coalition forces because they are barred from patrolling that territory. International maritime law says a country is responsible for law enforcement within 12 miles of its own coast, but Somalia is a failed state.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Now the weak transitional government and its Ethiopian allies are battling an Iraq-style Islamic insurgency.
The chaos, combined with connections between the pirates and powerful figures in key Somali clans that receive multimillion-dollar ransoms, mean that pirate ships can cruise the ragged coastline with relative impunity.
Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Program, says the mother ships melt into the ordinary shipping traffic without notice once they have disgorged their packs of speedboats. Coalition warships have frequently passed a mother ship without even realizing, he says.
The mother ships don't carry weapons, he says, preferring to arm two or three smaller boats with anti-tank missiles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They leave the small boats at sea, possibly with another boat loaded with fuel. When a merchant ship comes into view, the small, fast boats attack as a pack.
Mother ships simply blend in among the fishing vessels, Mwangura said. "They won't find it until there are no fishing vessels in Somali waters."