Pirate Horizons in the Gulf of Guinea

By James M. Bridger
Thursday, January 10, 2013

This article deals with the evolution of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

 

It was proclaimed in 2012 that the Somali pirate business model had been broken by a combination of coordinated naval patrols, heightened vessel security, and the ubiquitous presence of armed guards aboard valuable ships. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) attributed only 71 attacks to Somali pirates in the first 11 months of 2012, down from 237 the previous year. However, attacks are on the rise across the continent in the Gulf of Guinea, with 51 incidents recorded for the same period.


While several commentators, particularly within the shipping industry, have raised the alarm that the Gulf of Guinea will overtake the Horn of Africa as the world’s piracy hotspot, very distinct geopolitical conditions prevent the Somali business model from being easily transported to West Africa. To begin with, it is the abject failure of onshore authority in Somalia’s pirate-prone regions that allows the hijackers to keep their prey anchored for months at a time while they conduct ransom negations. By contrast, the states bordering the Gulf of Guinea are weak and corrupt, but not failed.


West African pirates may not yet be able to secure multi-million dollar ransoms, but they have begun to emulate many of the successful tactics of their Somali counterparts. An analysis of recent trends demonstrates that the region’s highly organized pirate gangs have altered their tactics, targets and hunting grounds in order to counteract efforts against them.


Geographic Displacement
A 2009 government amnesty offering to militants in the Niger Delta is credited for temporarily reducing Nigerian piracy, as the number of incidents reported fell from a high of 42 in 2007 to a low of 10 in 2011. These figures masked the full extent of the piracy problem, however, as it is estimated that 50-80% of pirate attacks go unreported in West Africa. While the IMB reported 40 incidents of piracy in Nigerian waters in 2008, an author’s interviews with corporate security managers working in the region found there to be 173 confirmed attacks that year.


While Nigerian waters were relatively calm in 2011, neighboring Benin—which had only reported one act of piracy in the previous five years—was suddenly struck with a spree of at least 20 attacks. The Nigeria-based criminal syndicates, pressured by heighted security in their own waters, had moved westward to find easier targets. Highlighting the vulnerability of vessels operating in the thought-to-be-safe waters of Benin, eight of the 20 vessels attacked were successfully hijacked and had large quantities of equipment, fuel or cargo stolen.   


As a response to the shared threat they face, the maritime forces of Nigeria and Benin began engaging in joint naval patrols in late 2011. Predictably, incidences of piracy declined in Beninois waters but were soon to reemerge elsewhere.


Though it has only 34 miles of coastline, West Africa’s 2012 piracy hotspot was Togo. The IMB recorded 15 pirate attacks in Togolese waters last year, more incidents than in the past five years combined. Other regional states that have seen a sharp increase in piracy include Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, the latter marking the furthest point west that the Nigeria-based criminals have expanded.


Despite an increase in naval patrols, attacks have also increased once again in Nigerian waters. The fight against piracy in the region was recently likened to sitting on a balloon—“push down on one side and pops up at the other; push on the other side and it pops up somewhere else.”


According to maritime risk consultant Michael Frodl, the pirates are moving further out to sea not just to avoid coastal patrols, “but also to take advantage of ships letting down their guard in waters assumed to be safer.” The majority of ships attacked off Benin and Togo in recent years have been at anchor or drifting, meaning that evasive maneuvers cannot be taken.


The limited range of the pirates’ small skiffs once acted as a check on their offshore expansion. Following the Somali model however, West African pirates have overcome this limitation by using motherships—converted fishing trawlers that allow supplies and multiple skiffs to be transported further afield for more extended piracy ventures. Attacks have now been launched against vessels that are over 120nm from the coast.


A Change in Tactics and Targets

Though Niger Delta-based insurgents were able to launch a number of concerted attacks against offshore oil infrastructure in the mid to late 2000s, the majority of maritime crime in the region has been a low-tech and opportunistic affair. This appears to have changed in the last two years, however, as a number of notable attacks reveal a high level of sophistication and operational capacity on the part of the criminal gangs.  


The pirates that hijacked the Abu Dhabi Star off the coast of Lagos in September demonstrated military-like organization, as they swarmed the vessel with four high-powered speed boats, boarded with a dozen heavily armed men in full combat dress, and immediately disabled the captured ship’s communications equipment. Signifying advanced logistical capabilities, the MT Orfeas was recently hijacked from anchorage off Côte d'Ivoire and then sailed 600nm back to the waters of Nigeria where its captors pilfered 3,000 tons of gasoline. The kidnapping of crew members from the tug Bourbon Liberty appears to exhibit a heightened level of operational intelligence, as the ship was attacked at the precise moment when its escort vessel had returned to shore to resupply.


These attacks are by no means atypical, as a 2011 UN assessment mission concluded that the region’s pirates were "resorting to sophisticated modes of operations and utilizing heavy weapons."


Diversifying the Business Model

Though cargo theft remains the primary modus operandi of the Gulf of Guinea’s pirates, there has been a sharp rise in incidents of hostage taking during oil bunkerings. Early 2012 witnessed a doubling in the number of attacks on oil tankers, with periods of captivity often lasting days as vessels are directed to another pirate-controlled ship where the fuel is transferred and then taken elsewhere for sale. While these extended duration robberies were once rare events in the region, there have been almost 20 such hijackings recorded in the last two years.


Bunkering has become part of a larger international web as Lebanese and Eastern European criminal interests reportedly arrange the black market sale of stolen crude and refined cargos. Shipping industry guidelines have also recognized that recent attacks appear to be the result of “intelligence-led planning,” where ships transporting valuable products such as gasoline are “targeted in very well coordinated and executed operations.” In this sense, Nigerian gangs are better connected to global criminal networks than their Somali counterparts, as first hand research has largely dismissed earlier reports that Somalia’s pirates were being financed and fed vessel intelligence by international cartels.  


The increase in large scale bunkering has coincided with a brazen string of kidnappings for ransom in the Nigerian littoral. Though whole ships cannot be held for Somali-style ransom, West African gangs have proven apt at kidnapping foreign personnel as a source of additional income. When the Bourbon Liberty was hijacked off Nigeria in October seven European sailors were taken hostage while the Nigerian crew members and the ship itself were left to drift. The vessel’s French owners secured their employees release two weeks later through an alleged ransom payment.


Shipping and oil companies attempt to keep ransom negotiations confidential so as to not encourage further kidnappings, but the crime continues to be a lucrative venture. December witnessed three separate maritime kidnappings off the Nigerian coast in which a total of 12 expatriate personnel were specifically targeted and taken hostage. Examined together, rising incidences of both extended duration bunkerings and kidnap for ransom indicate that the myriad criminal syndicates operating in the Gulf of Guinea have developed diversified business models.


Constant Vigilance
Maritime crime is now a transnational emergency in the Gulf of Guinea. Already spreading from Nigeria to Benin, Togo, and Côte d'Ivoire, it is likely that Liberia, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea will come under increased stress from pirates and oil thieves this year. Though the crisis is regional, the inter-governmental response has been limited to joint patrols between Nigeria and Benin and a series of security meetings that include other states.


A central problem is lack of maritime security capacity in the region. Nigeria is the only state that possesses a frigate, corvette or aerial surveillance capabilities, but it has thus far found it difficult to bring these assets to bear in a coordinated manner for a sustained length of time. Private security providers are similarly hampered by the fact that national law prevents them from deploying armed guards aboard ships operating in the territorial waters of regional states.


It is imperative that regional states, the international community and private actors adopt a more proactive and coordinated approach to combating maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea. So long as maritime security provision remains piecemeal and nationally orientated, the robbers will remain one step ahead of the cops.

 

Maritime Reporter September 2014 Digital Edition
FREE Maritime Reporter Subscription
Latest Maritime News    rss feeds

Ports

St. Lawrence Seaway Receives Strike Notice

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) was served a 72-hour notice to strike by UNIFOR, a group representing the Seaway’s 460 unionized employees.

'Environmental' Hull Cleaning Ops OK'd in Oman

Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs has granted GAC EnvironHull permission to conduct underwater hull cleaning operations using the brush-and-diver-free

EU to Invest in Port of Dublin Development

The EU's TEN-T Program  will co-fund with almost €2.5 million studies on the capacity development in the Port of Dublin to improve the freight traffic connection

News

USCG Suspends Search for the 2 Migrants

The Coast Guard suspended its search Wednesday at 3 p.m. for two missing Cuban migrants in the vicinity of Caesar Creek, Florida, to Haulover Inlet, Florida.

Danny Broad Appointed to ARENA Board

The Chair, Board members and staff of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) are delighted to advise that Danny Broad has been appointed by the Australian Government to the Board of ARENA.

First Libra Offshore Oil Well Confirms Discovery

Libra consortium reports that drilling the first well in the area extension of Libra, the 3-BRSA-1255-RJS (3-RJS-731), confirmed the discovery of good quality

Coast Guard

USCG Suspends Search for the 2 Migrants

The Coast Guard suspended its search Wednesday at 3 p.m. for two missing Cuban migrants in the vicinity of Caesar Creek, Florida, to Haulover Inlet, Florida.

USCG Rescues 33 Cuban Migrants off Florida

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 33 Cuban migrants from an overloaded boat taking on water off the southeast Florida coast on Wednesday, two days after 11 Cubans were

Coast Guard Searches off Miami for Missing Cuban Migrants

The U.S. Coast Guard searched on Tuesday for two missing Cuban rafters after the 11 others on their homemade vessel were plucked safely on Monday from the waters off Miami.

Maritime Safety

Monitoring U.S. Troops Returning from Ebola Mission

Secretary Hagel has signed an order that validated a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to place all U.S. military service members returning from

Eurodam Tops in USPH Inspections

Holland America Line’s ms Eurodam achieved a perfect score of 100 on a recent routine United States Public Health (USPH) inspection conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Warships Heading to Albany

HMAS Stuart and Japanese Defense Ship Kirisame departed Fleet Base West late yesterday to participate in the Albany Convoy Commemorative Event this weekend.   The

Eye on the Navy

Fincantieri & Vittoria Shipyard Join Forces

During the 24th edition of Euronaval, the most prestigious event in the world for naval defense, Fincantieri, one of the major shipbuilding groups worldwide, and Vittoria Shipyard,

Warships Heading to Albany

HMAS Stuart and Japanese Defense Ship Kirisame departed Fleet Base West late yesterday to participate in the Albany Convoy Commemorative Event this weekend.   The

Australia’s Newbuild LHD Enroute Homeport

Australia’s first Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ship, NUSHIP Canberra has been farewelled from Melbourne as she departs for Sydney. NUSHIP Canberra departed

Vessels

Maersk Interceptor Named in Norway

In a ceremony held at GMC Marine Partners yard in Mekjarvik in Norway, Mrs. Anita Utseth, Senior Vice President in Det norske oljeselskab ASA (Det norske) had

Eurodam Tops in USPH Inspections

Holland America Line’s ms Eurodam achieved a perfect score of 100 on a recent routine United States Public Health (USPH) inspection conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fincantieri & Vittoria Shipyard Join Forces

During the 24th edition of Euronaval, the most prestigious event in the world for naval defense, Fincantieri, one of the major shipbuilding groups worldwide, and Vittoria Shipyard,

Logistics

US Natgas Exports Would Raise Energy Prices but Boost Economy

Expanded U.S. liquefied natural gas exports would mean a modest price increase for domestic consumers, but the higher costs would be offset by a boost to the economy, the U.

Iran Gas Exports to Europe Would Take at Least 5 Years

Iran would take at least five years to start exporting natural gas to the European Union if sanctions were removed, industry experts said on Wednesday. Last month,

China Aviation Oil Seeks Jet Fuel for Nov-Dec

China Aviation Oil (Singapore) is seeking up to 2.056 million barrels of jet fuel for loading over November to December, a tender document showed on Wednesday.

Consulting

SMC to Provide Marine Coordination for Siemens

Specialist Marine Consultants Ltd (SMC) have been working with Siemens, providing offshore marine coordination for a fifth Siemens Wind Power construction project.

Good Performance by Dun & Bradstreet in 3Q 2014

Dun & Bradstreet, the world's leading source of commercial information and insight on businesses, today reported results for the third quarter ended September 30, 2014.

Schlumberger Introduces New Well Integrity Service

Schlumberger announced today the release of Invizion Evaluation* well integrity service, which helps operators evaluate zonal isolation by using integrated drilling, cementing and well logging data.

 
 
Maritime Careers / Shipboard Positions Maritime Contracts Naval Architecture Offshore Oil Pipelines Pod Propulsion Port Authority Salvage Ship Repair Winch
rss | archive | history | articles | privacy | terms and conditions | contributors | top maritime news | about us | copyright | maritime magazines
maritime security news | shipbuilding news | maritime industry | shipping news | maritime reporting | workboats news | ship design | maritime business

Time taken: 0.2673 sec (4 req/sec)