Maritime security analysts say the area of the attacks is spreading and a concerted, multi-pronged approach, including greater co-operation from Gulf of Guinea littoral states, is needed to defeat this new and dangerous style of piracy and destroy the criminals‚Äô onshore infrastructure
Piracy off West Africa is nothing new. The area, especially in the Gulf of Guinea, has long had a notorious reputation for being the home of pirate gangs that frequently board ships to steal whatever they can ‚Äî including crews taken ashore and held for ransom.
But a new and more dangerous type of piracy that emerged in late 2010 ‚Äî when organised gangs began attacking tankers with the sole aim of stealing their high-value cargoes ‚Äî has maritime security analysts worried.
Last Friday, the Hai Soon 6, a small Kirabati-flag tanker, was hijacked off Ghana. A group of 10 armed pirates boarded the ship just before midnight. After the hijacking, the vessel was observed to be sailing in a south-easterly direction. At the time of TradeWinds going to press this week, the fate of the vessel and its crew remained unknown.
The international spotlight was back on the region in January when the Dynacom products tanker Kerala was hijacked off Angola. For a week, the ship disappeared off the radar. Thinly disguised, it sailed to Nigeria where part of its cargo was siphoned into other tankers. When its hijackers had taken what they had deemed to be enough, they departed, leaving the badly bullied crew to sail to a port of refuge.
Although this type of piracy is still a relatively rare event compared to Somalia at its height in 2012, it is one ‚Äî given the high level of per-incident loss and risk to ship crews.
Of major concern is the fact that the area of the attacks, mostly perpetrated by Nigerian organised crime gangs, is spreading.
The analysts believe that a concerted, multi-pronged approach is required to end this new and dangerous style of piracy, and in order to do so, more co-operation is required from the littoral states in the Gulf of Guinea.
Why chase the liquid gold?
Nigeria produces two million barrels of oil per day but has the capacity to refine less than one-fifth of that. What goes out as crude oil is often re-imported as refined petroleum. This has led to the development of a petroleum black market, with activities running the gamut from illegal refineries in the Niger Delta to illegal ship-to-ship (STS) transfers and cargo theft.
According to a recent report, released by the US Navy‚Äôs department of Naval Intelligence (USNI), attacks on tankers are almost exclusively carried out by Nigeria-based criminal enterprises that are highly organised and intelligence driven, allegedly with the involvement of high-powered political, business, and military patrons.
‚ÄúThe geographic scope of this particular crime demonstrates the expansive multinational network of informants and buyers [that] hijack syndicates employ,‚Äù the report said. ‚ÄúWhile the leadership of the gangs is Nigerian, they are thought to recruit regionally.‚Äù
According to the USNI, the pirates claim to have a network of government officials who supply them with information on the location and content of the target vessels. After a tanker has been hijacked, it proceeds to a designated point on the high seas, where its liquid cargo is transhipped onto smaller tankers to be moved to various land-based oil facilities for distribution by oil marketers.
The financial rewards are far more lucrative than the ransoms collected by Somali pirates. It is estimated that the 12,000 metric tons or so of petroleum stolen from the Kerala had a market value of $10m.
Challenging problems, difficult solutions
Piracy in Somalia has all but been wiped out over the past two years thanks to multi-pronged international solutions and, although the cases off Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea are fundamentally different, the most potentially effective solutions will probably follow at least some of the same lines.
A report on West African piracy commissioned by Nato and compiled by independent maritime crime operations analyst Charles Dragonette, who has 42 years of experience as a commercial maritime operations analyst with the USNI, and made available exclusively to TradeWinds, notes that because ships carrying refined petroleum products are the relatively discrete ‚Äúvictim set‚Äù, they also permit more readily effective protection by international or multinational action.
Dragonette lists three essential elements for the multination maritime community to combat piracy:
1 Ship defence. Dragonette notes that, despite a large multinational naval task force patrolling the waters off Somalia, it was only after ships began carrying armed security teams in greater numbers that hijacking incidents by Somali pirates began to subside.
‚ÄúOff Somalia, despite a robust multinational naval presence, it was not the naval vessels that turned the tide,‚Äù Dragonette said. ‚ÄúWhile as many as 33 foreign warships from 16 or more nations once patrolled the Gulf of Aden and Northern Arabian Sea, at a cost calculated as averaging $100,000 per ship per day, Somali piracy also peaked in this period. More ships were held for longer and were released after paying steadily rising ransoms. Naval vessels, effective if in the right place at the right time, cannot be everywhere. The average successful pirate boarding took as little as 20 minutes from start to finish. This rapidly changed a pirate attack into a hostage situation with the kidnapped crews as human shields. Only when shipboard armed protection was widely deployed did the incidence of successful pirate attacks decline to its present negligible level.
2 Fast response. Dragonette says it is the ability for responding forces to arrive quickly if a crew is barricaded in a citadel, or for them to perform ‚Äúhot pursuit‚Äù into territorial waters with the permission and co-operation of the littoral state.
Dragonette notes that defensive measures, whether they be the application of security best practices, citadels or armed self-defence, are essential parts of protection against piracy and are passive.
‚ÄúDefence, no matter how effective, cannot win a victory, it can only stave off defeat so long as other measures, especially those that affect the beneficiaries of crime ashore, are not applied,‚Äù he stated.
3 Disrupting the criminals‚Äô shoreside infrastructure. ‚ÄúIn Southeast Asia, ship hijack for theft of the cargo was rampant up to late 1998 when China‚Äôs crackdown on illegal markets shut out the criminals and led to a near-total drop in any but the theft of the smallest quantities from inter-island tug and barge operators,‚Äù Dragonette said. ‚ÄúAt its peak, the criminals targeted and stole cargoes of diesel oil, palm oil, plywood, tin ingots and sugar.‚Äù
Dragonette argues that the international shipping community currently has its hands tied when trying to deploy these three key elements off West Africa. The region‚Äôs littoral states do not permit ships with armed guards to enter their territorial waters, nor do they allow foreign warships to conduct anti-piracy patrols or hot pursuits inside their waters. Furthermore, little concrete evidence has emerged from Nigeria indicating that authorities are cracking down on illegal cargoes being discharged at its ports.
‚ÄúThe refusal of littoral states in the Gulf of Guinea to permit contracted shipboard security is part of the difficulty fighting these crimes,‚Äù said Dragonette.
He suggests that various international and regional governmental and maritime organisations put pressure on these countries to enforce the law within their borders and territorial waters; secure permission for hot pursuit into territorial waters of perpetrators and suspects, respecting the littoral state‚Äôs primary authority and responsibility; and secure acceptance of internationally recognised means of self-defence, including embarked shipboard security.
He also suggests it is not beyond the realm of current low-level technology to use broad area surveillance radar to track the hijacked ship and to record its rendezvous with the tanker that will receive the stolen oil.
‚ÄúThe purpose would not be to interdict the operation while underway ‚Äî the Gulf of Guinea pirates are far less concerned with the hostage crews‚Äô welfare than Somalis have been ‚Äî but to note where the receiving ship goes and to ultimately identify it and those ashore directing its operations,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúNo piracy at sea of this sophistication and persistence can exist without a shoreside infrastructure and marketplace.‚Äù
Dragonette also suggests owners equip their vessels with alternative tracking and monitoring systems so that Automatic Identification System (AIS) indicators can be switched off in risky areas.
‚ÄúSailing without AIS, which is increasingly seen as an effective deterrent to attacks, is probably justified off West Africa,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúThis does not mean, however, that ships ‚Äî especially vulnerable products tankers ‚Äî cannot be equipped with inexpensive beacons and monitored, even without their crews being witting. Commercial beacons are inexpensive and can be set so that only those with permission can monitor them.‚Äù
Encouraging signs from Nigeria and India
Dragonette concludes his report by highlighting encouraging signs that have recently emerged from both Nigeria and India.
In July, Nigerian authorities handed over the suspects named by Interpol who were found aboard the hijacked trawler that was allegedly used in the attack on the Kerala.
While Dragonette welcomes the move, he says the official accounts still left many questions unanswered, especially with regards to why Nigeria believed the vessel it was tracking was suspicious and what, if anything, they observed or later learned about the vessel that received the Kerala‚Äôs cargo, and where the stolen oil wound up and who profited from its theft and sale.
‚ÄúThe arrest of the suspects aboard the trawler may reflect less a newfound sense of law enforcement on the part of Nigeria than a punishment of bit players who tried to cheat the system and/or a move by Nigeria to stem criticism by demonstrating to the international community that it does not need outside interference and can combat crime on its own,‚Äù he said, suggesting Nigeria‚Äôs desire for a leadership role in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) could be used as an incentive to get it to take serious action.
Another positive sign in July took place in India, where the Madras High Court rejected the case against the crew of the private security vessel Seaman Guard Ohio, which was arrested in October 2013 for bringing undeclared arms into Indian waters.
‚ÄúThe Indian court decision opens the way for other states to relax restrictions on the operation of ships providing armed guard crews to ships in transit between unco-operative ports. It continues an often grudging international acceptance of floating armouries as part of the vessel protection industry that is, for better or worse, many operators‚Äô last line of defence if they are to continue to operate their ships freely,‚Äù Dragonette concluded.