New Deep-Sea Trend in African Piracy?

By George Backwell
Monday, August 11, 2014
Product tankship at nightfall: Photo Dryad Maritime

Dryad Maritime COO Ian Millen
 tells of an audacious open-ocean ambush of a product tanker in Gulf of Guinea and wonders if this attack heralds a new trend in offshore African piracy, as follows:

"In the early hours of Saturday 9th August, a product tanker transiting 200 nautical miles south of the Nigerian shoreline encountered a radar contact of a drifting vessel along its track. After taking normal navigational measures to open the closest point of approach (CPA) from the drifting vessel and passing abeam at 6.5 nautical miles, the tanker’s crew heard a burst of gunfire; first from their starboard quarter when 6 or 7 shots were fired and later from forward of the ship’s accommodation structure, but this time a burst of automatic fire.

Although visibility was poor in the darkness and haze, one crew member reported seeing the outboard engine wakes of up to three small craft that engaged in a chase of the tanker, during the period of gunfire.

The well-prepared and well-drilled ship’s crew had taken measures to harden the vessel prior to leaving their last anchorage along the Gulf of Guinea coast. Initiation of anti-piracy drills and the retreat of the crew to the shelter of the vessel’s interior ensured that no one was injured. The pirates made an unsuccessful attempt at boarding the vessel from the stern, but eventually fell behind as the ship’s master opened the range.

It would be easy to characterise this event as just another statistic in the story of Gulf of Guinea maritime crime, but to do so would be missing one very significant point – the open ocean nature of what looks like an intelligence-led operation. It is true that this is not the first time that we have seen ships targeted for their cargo or their crew and it is also true that some of these armed attempts have taken place at considerable range from shore, particularly in the case of kidnapping of crew for ransom at ranges up to 160 nautical miles off the Niger Delta.

In the case of cargo theft, which looks like the most likely scenario, the preferred criminal modus operandi (MO) has been to stealthily embark an anchored vessel under cover of darkness and take control of the ship, sailing it under duress, to an area off the Niger Delta for illegal offload of the highly valuable cargo.

This is not an exclusive MO as vessels have previously been taken offshore, notably south of Lome (Togo) and most recently south of the Ghana/Togo border with the hijack of Hai Soon 6, but the range at which this latest attack took place may signal a new, and worrying, development.

The deployment of a mother vessel some 200 nautical miles offshore, in open ocean, lying in wait for a passing vessel is something more akin to Somali piracy methods than those normally seen in the Gulf of Guinea. In such a situation, there can be no guarantee of landing a criminal catch, especially of a specific ship or cargo. Kidnap of crew for ransom can be achieved from much easier, and less logistically challenging, areas off the Niger Delta, as can simple armed robbery which is better achieved in the target rich environment of the Gulf of Guinea’s many anchorages and port approaches.

The victim vessel was in transit between a Gulf of Guinea port and a destination further south (details withheld to protect identity at this stage). It is feasible that an intelligence-led operation was mounted against this vessel. If the departure and destination ports were known, and the mother ship had a suitable equipment fit, it is possible that the pirates could sit along the likely route and intercept the vessel whilst underway. With the amount of data shared on maritime movements, it is even conceivable that the ship’s passage plan could have fallen into the wrong hands, making this an even simpler criminal mission.

In terms of pirate capability, this incident may represent a step change in tactics that could, if repeated, be a game changer in Gulf of Guinea piracy. Unlike a stealthy climb on to a vessel at anchor, boarding a vessel underway is a very different proposition, especially at night in open seas. This is something that even highly motivated Somali pirates have only attempted on a small number of occasions during the hours of darkness."


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