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Piracy May Be Getting Worse, Not Better

The Gulf of Guinea is fast replacing Somalia as the world's most dangerous place to sail.

Published May 31, 2013 1:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

Photo: Private guard escort on a merchant ship providing security services against piracy in the Indian Ocean.

By Tom Thompson

While the frequency of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa has fallen to its lowest level since 2009, this is no time to celebrate. Somali pirates still hold two vessels for ransom with 60 crewmembers as hostages. More alarming, however, is the increase in the capabilities of pirate groups in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, now challenging Somalia as the world’s most dangerous place to sail. Nigeria accounted for 27 attacks last year, and Togo reported more attacks in 2012 than in the previous two years combined.

It’s the dynamics of these attacks that is especially worrisome.

Strategically, the West Africa region of the Gulf of Guinea is the source of 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, which some analysts believe will increase to 25 percent over the next five years. The region has the fastest rate of discovery of new reserves in the world, and those reserves have become a magnet drawing oil majors from the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Targeting Cargoes, Not Hostages

As a result, tankers in particular are the prized prey of pirates, who, frankly, are better described as a powerful transnational mafia. Sophisticated pirate networks often have vast knowledge of the operations of the oil industry and access to vital information, including the names of ships, intended voyage course, value of the cargo, whether or not armed guards are aboard, and the extent of the insurance cover.

Many attacks are unreported. And any possible hostage value is far exceeded by the value of the oil to be siphoned off prior to black market “recycling” back into the global supply system. Goods such as fish, cocoa, and minerals are also targets.

Because illicit profits are from the sale of oil or other goods rather than the ransoming of hostages, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have proven to be particularly violent. Vessels are frequently sprayed with automatic weapons fire, and the murder of crewmembers is not uncommon, according to Rick Nelson at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some ships have resorted to “citadels,” safe rooms where the crew can barricade themselves out of harm’s way. But determined criminals have been known to take plastic explosives onto vessels, drill through bulkheads to pour in flammable gasoline, or shoot at doors and hatches indiscriminately. The industry is now divided on whether citadels are a safe haven or a death trap.

Territorial Issues

Piracy attacks in West Africa do not always occur on the high seas. Vessels are predominantly attacked in territorial waters. This prevents the easy use of either private or international military forces, a situation not made easier by a string of small countries with limited maritime enforcement capability. Then, too, there have been cases where security officials and politicians in the region are complicit in the piracy and theft of oil.

Pirate attacks on ships in the Gulf of Guinea are threatening one of the world’s fast-growing strategic hubs. They are likely to intensify unless the region’s weak naval and coast guard defenses are beefed up soon. – MarEx

Tom Thompson is an analyst at the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) and has traveled extensively in West Africa. His views are not necessarily those of MARAD or of any U. S. government agency.