While Somali piracy may have been significantly down in 2012, another type of illicit activity in the Gulf of Aden has continued to increase. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 107,500 people fled Africa for Yemen via the sea in 2012. This was an increase from 103,000 in 2011 and the most since these statistics were first collected in 2006. The majority of the refugees in 2012 were Ethiopian, and they braved dangerous conditions which are estimated to have left at least 100 dead or lost at sea.
The growth in human smuggling over the last year was actually less than between 2010 and 2011, when the number of refugees crossing the Gulf increased from 53,000 to 103,000. That growth has generally been attributed to the increasing number of Ethiopian migrants, which greatly outnumber all other nationalities. Until 2009, most people smuggled across the Gulf were Somalis.
This article is the second installment of a three part series on the evolution of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The initial background piece can be found here, while an appraisal of counter-piracy strategies and initiatives will appear next month.
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.
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.
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.
James Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist at Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com
As fighting continues Friday between Israel and Hamas, the region braces for an expanded Israel Defense Force (IDF) incursion into the Gaza Strip – a possibility indicated by the government approval of a mobilization of up of 30,000 reservists. Such a move would consist mostly of air and ground forces, but the Israeli Navy would also have a role to play.
The bulk of the Israeli Navy consists of these missile boats and patrol craft, plus a handful of more-capable corvettes and subs. Missile boats have already shelled (and perhaps struck with missiles) Hamas security positions along the coast, and the Navy continues to enforce its blockade of the Strip. As Dr. Robert Farley and Galrahn, a pair of prominent naval bloggers (see our @CIMSEC twitter stream conversation), say naval options during this and expanded Israeli operations will mostly be confined to further shore bombardment and interdiction, along with ISR and effective surgicial strikes ashore. Martin Skold, another CIMSEC member, notes that the normal missile load-out of Israel’s naval platforms limits the frequency of such strikes, especially when options such as the F-16 are readily available. On the flip side, Israeli naval vessels may tempt Hamas as targets – especially as with the case of the Hezbollah attack on the INS Hanit in 2006 if they let their guard down. It will be interesting to see if Hamas has the capability to attempt a similar strike.
Other scenarios tossed about for expanded fighting in the region include Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Egypt. The latter would present the greatest naval challenges with 6 American-built frigates, 4 Romeo-class submarines, and roughly 200 other ships and craft. But as the former showed with the Hanit, one should never count out the damage non-state actors can do to a Navy.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
“This is a very real exercise, this is not some type of big costume party,” said Brad Barker, president of Halo Corp, a security firm hosting the Oct. 31 training demonstration during the summit at a 44-acre Paradise Point Resort island on a San Diego bay. “Everything that will be simulated at this event has already happened, it just hasn’t happened all at once on the same night. But the training is very real, it just happens to be the bad guys we’re having a little fun with.”
Hundreds of military, law enforcement and medical personnel will observe the Hollywood-style production of a zombie attack as part of their emergency response training.
In the scenario, a VIP and his personal detail are trapped in a village, surrounded by zombies when a bomb explodes. The VIP is wounded and his team must move through the town while dodging bullets and shooting back at the invading zombies. At one point, some members of the team are bit by zombies and must be taken to a field medical facility for decontamination and treatment.
“No one knows what the zombies will do in our scenario, but quite frankly no one knows what a terrorist will do,” Barker said. “If a law enforcement officer sees a zombie and says, ‘Freeze, get your hands in the air!’ What’s the zombie going to do? He’s going to moan at you. If someone on PCP or some other psychotic drug is told that, the truth is he’s not going to react to you.”
It’s an interesting way to generate interest and use an outside-the-box scenario to develop insights into parallel reality based situations, similar to the way that military academics mine history for case studies or futurists use the intelligent prognostications of science fiction to think about the future of society and technology and its implications for warfare. Hopefully this scenario doesn’t fall into the latter category. Click on the link above for the full story.