Information Cut-off Date – 31 May 2016
The piracy/maritime crime threat in the Gulf of Guinea is assessed as HIGH, based on an increasing number of incidents in the area, including suspicious vessel activity, attacks, and kidnappings. Since the beginning of the year through ICD, there have been 59 incidents in the entire Gulf, with the overwhelming majority of them (47) occurring off the coast of Nigeria between Warri and Port Harcourt.
Largely due to the drop in global oil prices and the subsequent loss of profit from tanker hijackings, the traditional focus of pirates in the area (on stealing the cargo from oil and oil product tankers) no longer pays as well as it once did. Consequently, the “business plan” driving Gulf of Guinea piracy has changed. Pirates now focus on kidnapping crew members from the vessels they attack and holding them for ransom.
This new business plan confers a number of tactical advantages for the pirates, not the least of which is the speed and flexibility by which kidnappings can be executed in comparison with hijackings. Hijackings require a lighter/small tanker with which to offload stolen cargo; and an on-shore infrastructure to store, refine, and distribute petroleum products. Kidnappings require neither of these - only a boat with sufficient range and speed to overtake a target, personal weapons, and a safe haven where hostages can be held until ransomed.
Note: Pirates operating in this area are typically heavily armed and have no hesitation about using deadly force to achieve their goals. Additionally, pirates whose objective is kidnapping can travel farther from shore and thus have an expanded area of operations. As a result, regional improvements in near-shore counter-piracy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are largely nullified – thus giving pirates a greater ability to avoid interdiction.
While kidnapping does require a location on-shore where hostages can be held until ransomed, the natural cover and concealment provided by the small creeks and bayous of the Niger Delta have no equal in this regard. As a result, there is a central focus for piracy operations in the Gulf of Guinea – generally limited to no more than 100-120nm offshore, going west from Calabar to Warri, Nigeria (including Port Harcourt and Brass). This is evidenced by the 12 maritime-related kidnappings off the coast of Nigeria between Warri and Port Harcourt since 1 January 2016 through ICD. Interestingly and during this same period, there were no maritime kidnappings elsewhere in West Africa.
Differences Worth Noting
Although this emerging pattern calls to mind activities of East Africa (ie Somali) pirates from a few years ago, there are differences worth noting. Unlike Somalia during the peak years of Gulf of Aden/Arabian Sea piracy (starting about 2008 through 2011), Nigeria is not - nor has it been - categorized as a “failing (or failed) state”. Despite numerous challenges from Muslim and Niger Delta insurgents, Nigerian government security forces have largely been able to maintain territorial integrity (albeit with limited exceptions, primarily in the country’s North East Zone due to the Boko Haram jihadists).
As a result and unlike Somalia, safe havens (where hostages can be held securely pending payment of ransom) can be maintained for only a relatively short time. Also, criminal gangs involved in maritime kidnapping derive a significant financial benefit from “processing” victims as quickly as possible. Nigeria has a sophisticated banking system which supports the rapid and anonymous, transfer of funds from a victim (or the victim’s kidnap and ransom insurance policy) to the kidnappers.
This speed (that is, from time of the actual kidnap to when the ransom is paid and the victim released) is one of the most significant differences between Somali and Gulf of Guinea piracy. Whereas some victims of Somalia pirates were held for years, Gulf of Guinea hostages tend to be released in weeks. A good analogy in this regard is the number of times a table in a restaurant can be used by different parties during a given period of time - if a table is used by three groups during a dinner service; the restaurant stands to make more money than if the table is only used once.
Likewise, if hostages can be ransomed quickly and released, the gang is then “freed” to conduct more kidnappings and make more money from ransoms. Of course, the offset for this freedom are expenses incurred in conducting kidnappings (e.g., vessels, fuel, weapons & ammo, establishing and maintaining a safe haven, etc.), the risk of injury or death during the kidnapping itself, and the possibility of capture - or worse - by security forces.
Elsewhere along the West African coastline, the risk from piracy and maritime crime is significantly less than in the territorial and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waters of Nigeria. Although open-ocean incidents are not unknown, the chance of being attacked by pirates is assessed as MODERATE, decreasing to LOW as you move further away from the Nigerian coast. Nearly all incidents to the west and south of Nigeria involve the boarding/attempted boarding of vessels in port or at anchorages; e.g., the attempted boarding of a product tanker at the Lomé anchorage, Togo on 11 May (thwarted by the quick response of the crew).
Advisory Issued by the US Office of Naval Intelligence, 18 February 2016
However, due to suspected pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea, an advisory was issued by the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) on 18 February 2016. All vessels were asked to maintain vigilance while in this area of operation - with special emphasis for ships within 100nm of Tema, Ghana; Lomé, Togo; and Cotonou, Benin.
Consistent with the ONI advisory, we highly recommend maintaining a vigilant watch while transiting the Gulf of Guinea. Reports analyzed by the Securewest International Maritime Assistance Center (MAC) indicate pirates in this region are adept at seeking out and exploiting vessel vulnerabilities such as low speed; unsecured access points; and inadequate/relaxed adherence to security.
As feasible, measures should be taken to offset these vulnerabilities – consistent with operational requirements and good seamanship.
Additional recommendations - extracted from the interim Guidelines for Owners, Operators and Masters for Protection against Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Region:
Minimize use of VHF; use email or secure satellite telephone instead. Where possible only answer known or legitimate callers on VHF, bearing in mind that imposters are likely.
Communications with external parties should be limited. For email correspondence to Agents, Charterers, Chandlers etc., recommend that the email imparts just the information required to fulfil requirements or contractual obligations – and no more.
The greatest risks of piracy are at night; factor this into your planning.
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