Section 2: The Threat

As well as piracy, regional instability has introduced new security threats including the use of:

  • Anti-ship missiles.
  • Sea mines.
  • Water-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (WBIED).


Pirates operate in Pirate Action Groups (PAG) who operate several different boat configurations, typically using small high speed (up to 25 knots) open boats or skiffs.
PAG boat configurations include:

  • Skiffs only.
  • Open whalers carrying significant quantities of fuel and often towing one or more attack skiffs.
  • Motherships, which include merchant ships and fishing vessels but, more commonly, dhows.

Where motherships are used the crew are often held onboard as hostages. Motherships are used to carry pirates, stores, fuel and attack skiffs to enable pirates to operate over a much larger area and are significantly less affected by the weather. Attack skiffs are often towed behind motherships. Where the size of the mothership allows, skiffs may be carried onboard and camouflaged.

Pirates may use small arms fire and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) to intimidate Masters of ships to reduce speed or stop to allow them to board. The bridge and accommodation tend to be the main targets for these weapons.

Pirates use long lightweight ladders, knotted climbing ropes or long hooked poles to climb up the side of the ship. Once onboard they will make their way to the bridge to try to take control of the ship. When on the bridge they will demand the ship slows/stops to enable other pirates to board.

Attacks can take place at any time – day or night – however experience shows attacks at dawn and dusk are more likely.

The intent of Somali pirates is to hijack the ship and hold the crew for ransom. The usual practice is to keep the crew onboard as negotiations progress, keeping both the crew and the ship together. Seafarers have occasionally been separated by nationality and taken ashore. It is in the interests of the pirates to keep their captives alive, although cases of intimidation and torture have occurred.

Anti-ship missiles

Anti-ship missiles are long range, accurate and powerful weapons and have been used against military ships in the region. Their use against merchant ships associated with regional conflict cannot be discounted. Other ships may be hit if the missile controller targets the wrong ship or the missile homes in on an unintended target.

Sea mines

Sea mines have been used to deter and deny access to key ports in Yemen. These mines are usually tethered or anchored but may break free from moorings and drift into shipping lanes. Transiting merchant ships are not a target and it is recommended ships use the MSTC when passing through the area.

Water-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices

WBIED attacks have been used against warships and merchant ships in the southern Red Sea/BAM/western area of the Gulf of Aden.

Incidents have highlighted attacks by different groups operating in the region:

  • WBIED used in the regional conflict have been aimed at harming those associated with the conflict. These boats have been unmanned and operated remotely.
  • WBIED used by extremists have been aimed at merchant ships. These boats have been manned.

An attack involving a WBIED is likely to involve one or more speed boats operated by a number of individuals approaching and firing both small arms and RPGs. Masters should recognise the intent of these attacks is to cause damage and not necessarily to board the ship. Mitigation measures to prevent the speed boat making contact with the ship’s hull are limited.