The discovery of substantial natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean sea holds the potential to bring great prosperity to several countries in the region. But the overlap of the gas fields with long-standing disputes has upped regional tensions, threatening to de-stabilize the area’s politics. The outcome will, of course, depend on many factors.
Security in the tension-fraught Middle East often fills international headlines, from conflict in Syria to Iran’s alleged nuclear program, to Israel-Palestine and more. However, many players are now focusing on a less flashy issue that may be just as important – substantial natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean sea.
Some 35 trillion-cubic-feet (tcf) have been located, while estimates range up to 120tcf, dispersed in the Tamar and Leviathan fields, among others. To date, the key beneficiaries are Israel and Cyprus, who stand to gain through achieving significant energy security, as well as through exports. However, the predicted locations of some gas fields overlap several maritime boundaries causing disputes between Israel and Lebanon as well as Greek- and Turkish Cyprus, intensifying long-standing tensions. Whether the eventual exploitation of these deposits will strengthen or undermine regional stability depends on many factors.
The Israeli-Lebanese border dispute is complicated by the potential for action by Hamas, which has threatened to attack Israeli gas platforms. Israel’s navy is largely occupied with enforcing its blockade of Gaza, and may lack the capacity, and capability, to secure offshore platforms especially from unconventional threats. Meanwhile Turkey, which does recognize Greek-Cypriot boundary claims and possesses the region’s most powerful navy, has been increasingly active, scheduling major naval exercises and upping its general presence in the area.
The US and Russia are important players as well, and could play multiple roles. Russia’s Gazprom has indicated financial interest, and the Russian navy has held three major exercises in the Mediterranean since 2011. Its potential as a stabilizing force in the future, though, depends on the uncertain fate of its Syrian naval facility, without which Russia’s ability to deploy in the area would be severely restricted. The Americans have been involved in exploration from the beginning and have good relations with most actors in the region. However, its support for Greek-Cypriot claims (also supported by Russia) could cause problems with Turkey while the US navy’s attention is fixed on the Persian Gulf and increasingly on Asia-Pacific, presumably restricting America’s willingness to balance Mediterranean tensions.
Another key factor will be the evolving state of the Israel-Turkey relationship. Their recent re-starting of diplomatic ties certainly bodes well for regional stability, and the potential for energy cooperation may spur its development. However, its impact on maritime boundary disputes, and therefore resource extraction, remains to be seen. Closer ties might calm the Cypriot dispute, although those tensions could also pose challenges (Israel concluded a maritime boundary agreement with Greek Cyprus in 2010, which Turkey does not recognize on principle). In the former case, Turkey’s naval power could serve to fill any gaps left by Israel’s security forces, and an alliance of these key regional powers might negate the need for a balancing force from outside. On the other hand, it could equally prove de-stabilizing in the latter scenario, should Turkish-Israeli naval confrontations become a reality (which I believe is unlikely).
All things considered, the future of natural gas development the Eastern Mediterranean is clouded, and the risks may in fact equal the potential rewards. From the outside, we will simply have to watch and wait.
Andrew Chisholm is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. He recently graduated from the University of King’s College with a B.A., Combined Honours, in Political Science and History, and studied Conflict Resolution at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Andrew focuses his writing on contemporary Canadian foreign, defence, and security policy.
Aaron Willschick on the tension over the recent Russian military exercise in the Black Sea and how Russian President Vladimir Putin should put an end to his persistent warmongering.
In what is becoming an almost daily occurrence, the Russian government has again stolen the front page news headlines with its recent military exercise involving more than thirty warships, 250 combat vehicles and up to 7, 000 troops. The exercise has been met with confusion and anxiety from the international community with regards to what in fact Russia’s intention was with ordering the surprise maritime exercise.
The country that has had the strongest reaction against the exercise is Georgia. Tensions have been high between the two countries ever since they went to war in 2008 over the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In response to the exercise, the Georgian government said Russian military action in the Black Sea was “at odds with the interests of stability.” The official Russian statement on the drills from state-run news agency RIA Novosti was that they were meant to ensure regional stability ahead of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
On April 1st, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed Georgia’s condemnation, stating that Tbilisi’s assertion was groundless and out of sync with its declared commitment to normalize its relationship with Russia. The Foreign Ministry also stated that Georgia’s claims that the military drills were destabilizing reflects its own regional aggressions. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Georgian reaction was “a public inflation of a Russian threat to cover its own confrontational policy.” NATO has not offered an official response to the exercise, but a NATO-member diplomat suggested that there was some unease over the surprise nature of the drill. There was no official objection from Ukraine either, but some members of the parliament chose to voice their displeasure.
Under international law, maritime exercises of this size do not need to be announced to other countries in advance, but as evidenced by some of the reaction, it has only added to the mounting international skepticism over Russia’s global intentions. Despite the rising tension, it is fairly clear that the Black Sea military exercise is yet more warmongering by the Kremlin and Putin and what we have come to expect during his lengthy tenure as either Russian President or Prime Minister. Putin himself even chose to attend the exercise in the Black Sea town of Anapa, along with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. During his time in office, Putin has used his role as commander-in-chief to cast himself as a strong leader for whom national security is foremost. Particularly since returning to the presidency last May, Putin has stressed the importance of a strong and agile military. He has often cited external threats in his thirteen years in power when discussing the need for reliable armed forces. It has been reported that spontaneous training missions resembling this one are apparently set to become routine in the Russian military.
Despite Russian denials, it is quite apparent that this exercise is part of some grand strategy of standing up to the West and asserting Russia’s regional dominance. Putin seems intent on projecting Russian power towards Europe as well as the Middle East. In late February, Putin ordered military leaders to make urgent improvements to the armed forces in the next few years, saying Russia must thwart Western attempts to tip the balance of power. He said that manoeuvres must be held with less advance warning to keep soldiers ready and prepared. Observers have commented that the drill is likely part of a wider attempt to reconfirm that the Russian navy and military are still able to play a political and geopolitical role in the south.
It is time for Putin to put an end to his regular attempts at flexing Russia’s geopolitical and military might. It has become all too regular an occurrence that it has now grown to be predictable and reminiscent of Soviet rhetoric during the Cold War. As a leader, Putin seems intent on making himself feared on the international stage which is unrealistic in this day and age. All the strength he is putting into trying to raise Russia’s geopolitical prominence could be spent on re-establishing and reinforcing relationships with Western powers. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this will happen until Putin has decided that his time in the Russian political spotlight has come to an end, a remote possibility unlikely to occur any time soon.
Aaron Willschick is a recent graduate from the MA program in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He also holds an MA degree in political science from York University and a BaH from York University’s Glendon College. His research interests include the European Union, European security and defense policy, NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe and democratization. He has extensive experience in policy and research, having worked as a trade assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and a research assistant to well-known Canadian author Anna Porter and York University political science professor Heather MacRae.
Along with the release of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB)’s 2012 piracy report come the onslaught of analysts seeking to explain 1) why the crime is decreasing in certain theaters, 2) why it is expanding in others, and 3) where it will spread next.
The top story is that global pirate attacks have hit a five-year low, thanks to a sharp decline in the activities of Somalia’s notorious marauders. When this trend is reported it is almost always followed by the caveat that a “new” piracy epicenter has “emerged” in Nigeria and that the criminal enterprise is now increasing and expanding across the Gulf of Guinea. These types of statements are an oversimplification, however, and mask the complexities of maritime crime in West Africa.
Playing with Numbers
A multitude of criminal actors have parasitically operated in the Nigerian littoral since the country’s oil boom in the 1970s—piracy, kidnapping, and oil theft are by no means “new” to the region. To say that the country has “reemerged” as an epicenter of maritime crime is more accurate, as it wasonly in 2007that Somali waters became more pirate prone than those of Nigeria. The 27 pirate attacks reported for Nigeria in 2012 represents an increase over the past two years, but fall well short of the 42 attacks the IMB recorded in 2007.
One must also be careful (a mistake this author is willing to admit) about reporting an absolute “increase” in the total number of pirate attacks that have taken place in West Africa over the past year. The IMB’s figures display a clear trend: attacks off Nigeria increased from 10 to 27, while those for the region as a whole rose from 44 to 51. These numbers are incomplete, however, as they only include incidents that were directly reported to the IMB; whereas an estimated 50-80% of pirateattacks go unreported.
The larger data set of the Danish consultancy firm Risk Intelligence reveals a decrease in Nigerian and West African piracy. The company recorded 48 attacks in Nigerian waters in 2012, a higher number than the IMB reported, but lower than Risk Intelligence’s 2011 and 2010 figures, recorded as 52 and 73 attacks respectively. The expansion of pirate gangs into the waters ofneighboring statesexplains why attacks may have decreased in Nigeria, but it is also noted that the total figure for West African waters has fallen from 116 in 2011 to 89 in 2012.
Table 1: Incidents of Piracy off Nigeria and West Africa: 2008-2012 (Risk Intelligence)
West Africa Total
Nigerian Incidents as Percentage of Regional Total
Not More, but Different
An overall decline in the total number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea does not mean that the problem is being a solved. TheJanuary 16 hijacking of the Panamanian-flagged product tanker Itri andFebruary 4th hijackingof the Luxembourg-flagged tanker MT Gascogne, both off Côte d’Ivoire, attest that the threat remains high, but has shifted in terms of its targets and scope.
The rampant maritime crime and insurgency that plagued Nigeria in the mid-to-late 2000s displayed a mixture of communal, political and economic motives and was frequently directed towards supply vessels and fixed assets operating in oil and gas fields off the Niger Delta. A 2009 amnesty offered by the federal government essentially served to buy off thousands of Delta militants,rewarding some of themwith huge security contracts to protect the waters they had previously hunted in. It is this change in the security environment that is credited with the sharp decline in pirate attacks in Nigerian waters seen in Table 1.
Heightened security in the Nigerian littoral appears to have had a Darwinian effect on maritime criminals, as more sophisticated and politically connected syndicates have thrived at the relative expense of opportunistic “smash-and-grab” pirates.
One manner in which this is evident is target selection. Attacks against support vessels operating close to shore have declined over the last five years (and with them, the total number of incidents), but this has coincided, since 2010, with a surge in tanker hijackings. According to the records of one corporate security manager operating in Nigeria, there were 42 attacks against supply vessels in 2008 (one of the worst years of the Niger Delta insurgency), but only 15 in 2012. Conversely, there were just 8 attacks against tankers and cargo ships in 2008, but 42 in 2012. In total,Risk Intelligence has recorded78 attempted attacks on product tankers and 27short-duration hijackingssince December 2010.
This shift in targets might explain why commenters incorrectly refer to rising levels of piracy in the region, as the hijacking and short-term disappearance of tankers owned by international companies garners far greater media attention than the robbing of supply ships, despite the fact that these types of attacks were more frequent.
Bigger and Better
While boarding a supply vessel and robbing it of valuables is a relatively low-tech affair, hijacking a product tanker and pilfering vast quantities of fuel over several days requires a high degree of organization and sophistication. Theconfessions of four captured pirates, believed to be behind the hijacking of the Energy Centurion off the coast of Togo on August 28, 2012, reveals the intricacies of such an operation.
According to one testimony, criminal syndicates are “sponsored by powerful people,” including Nigerian government officials and oil industry executives, who provide advanced payment and information about the cargo, route, and security details of ships that have been targeted. Theseintelligence-led operationshave become increasingly multinational with gangs based in Nigeria planning attacks off the coasts of Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire, often with theassistance of nationalsfrom these countries.
Once a vessel has been hijacked, pirates have been known to go to great lengths to make sure that the ship ‘disappears’ while preparations are made to offload the cargo. For example, the gang that hijacked the product tanker MT Anuket Emerald made sure to damage all the ship’s communication equipment and loading computer, repaint its funnel, change the tanker’s name, and remove its IMO number. The offloading and black market sale of stolen product is equally complex, requiring a network of“oil mafia” insiderswho facilitate fuel storage at numerous depots across Nigeria and then organize for onward distribution.
Money over Everything
Though fewer ships are being attacked, the current crop of West African pirates (and their financial backers) are seeing greater returns. The group that recently hijacked the Itri was able to siphon off the ship’s entire cargo of fuel,valued at $5 million. Captured pirates involved in tanker hijackings (dubiously) claim thatpayoffs rangefrom $17,000 for new recruits to over $60,000 for ‘commanders.’ The value of large-scale oil theft exceeds many of the ransom sums made by Somali pirates and is acquired without months of hostage negotiations. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, notes piracy expert Martin Murphy, is now“the most lucrative in the world.”
The West African modus operandi is also more secure, as Nigerian pirates are not subjected to the same risks as their Somali counterparts—namely extended voyages in treacherous open ocean, the combined pressure of the world’s greatest navies, and the widespread use of professional armed guards aboard merchant vessels. Endemic corruption in Nigeria assures that even if pirates are caught, they are unlikely to face serious consequences. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency and Joint Task Force have made dozens of arrests in recent months, butlack the authorityto detain or prosecute suspects as this is the responsibility of other security agencies. Bribes to these agencies, captured pirates note, are set aside as an operational expense, meaning most suspects arereleased without charge.
In terms of numbers, overall pirate attacks may be declining in the Gulf of Guinea, but the gangs responsible appear to have increased both their operational sophistication and target selectivity. Given the increased value of each operation and the small risk of punishment their crimes show no signs of disappearing.
James M. Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist with Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com
Gulf of Guinea Pirate Attacks in 2012. Source: IMB
On August 4, 2012, pirates attacked an oil barge, killing two local security personnel and kidnapping four foreign workers. Two weeks later, pirates hijacked and held for five days a British-managed oil tanker as they unloaded its cargo, a style of attack that repeated the following fortnight on a much larger Greek owned tanker.
While such events were routine of late off the coast of Somalia, these attacks occurred on the other side of the continent, in the West African territorial waters of Nigeria and Togo. Piracy has now declined in the Indian Ocean—a trend attributed to international naval patrols, the increased use of armed guards aboard ships, and political developments in Somalia—but in the Gulf of Guinea it is on the rise. The region reported 47 incidents of piracy (it is estimated that up to 60% of attacks go unreported) to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2010, a number which rose to 61 in 2011 and will likely be surpassed by 2012 figures.
Highlighting this growing danger, Lloyd’s Market Association, a London-based group of insurer representatives, recently added the Gulf of Guinea to its “Hull War, Strikes, Terrorism and Related Perils Listed Areas,” placing the waters of Nigeria and Benin in the same category as those of Somalia and Iraq. Seeking to examine the intricacies of this oft-overlooked security threat, this article intends to do three things in three posts: chart the evolution of West African piracy, assess whether or not a “Somalization” is occurring, and evaluate regional and international plans to combat the mounting crisis.
From Fishermen to “Freedom Fighters”
The problem of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea extends from Senegal in the north to Angola in the south, and affects over a dozen countries in between. The historical epicenter is Nigeria, where pirates have parasitically fed off the country’s oil boom since the 1970s. During Nigeria’s first iteration of piracy, the crime began as simple economic opportunism. Ransacking docked ships was common, while bolder pirates—equipped with little more than canoes and machetes—ventured slightly further from port in attempts to board and rob slow-moving vessels. The theft of crude oil from refueling or anchored ships, referred to as “bunkering,” also brought a tidy profit through resale on a black market that spans the continent.
In the early 2000s, a drastic change occurred as piracy, while remaining an economic-minded crime, became infused with politics. The basic grievance was that the federal government in Abuja had taken too great a share of Nigeria’s petroleum wealth, while distributing little back to the oil-soaked communities of the Niger Delta. A plethora of militant groups emerged to “reddress” the oil issue during this period, the most significant of which was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
Seen by its practitioners as an effective tool for the “redistribution” of oil wealth, pirate attacks increased dramatically at the turn of the century. From 2000 to 2005, Nigeria’s waters were more pirate-prone than those of Somalia. By 2006 an estimated $1.5 billion in annual revenues for the country was lost through a combination of piracy, bunkering, and militant attacks on oil infrastructure.1
Politically motivated attacks on offshore platforms, the kidnapping of oil workers, and the theft of crude oil has challenged the traditional definition of piracy, as the crime is only recognized under international law if it is committed “for private ends.” Certain incidents are clearly socio-political in nature. In 2000, for example, militants stormed a Royal Dutch Shell oil storage platform, taking 165 employees hostage before releasing them in exchange for talks with the government.2
Piracy expert Martin Murphy concludes that in West Africa, the “line between the political and the criminal is hard to draw.”3 In Somalia, pioneering pirates first made claims of “restitution” for illegal foreign fishing and toxic dumping before expanding into indiscriminate hijacking and hostage taking, driven solely by profits. Similarly in the Gulf of Guinea, bunkering began as a form of economic protest but has grown into a multi-million dollar industry as oil tankers’ valuable cargos are robbed and resold.
Go Forth and Multiply
Attacks off the coast of Nigeria have ebbed and flowed in recent years. Intensified naval patrols and a 2009 government amnesty offered to Delta militants resulted in a decline in reported attacks – from a high of 42 in 2007 to 10 in 2011.4 Nigerian piracy has increased in 2012, however, with 23 incidents already reported in the first three quarters.
According to piracy expert J. Peter Pham, the gangs now operating across the Gulf of Guinea are “composed mainly of, and certainly led by, Nigerians, with perhaps a smattering of other nationalities.” They have shifted their operations into neighbouring states as the authorities there lack the capacity to survey and patrol their own waters.
Piracy is but one symptom of the lack of maritime order in the region, as endemic drug smuggling; human and weapons trafficking; and attacks against oil infrastructure have threatened to turn West Africa’s seaways into a criminal super-highway. These manifestations of maritime insecurity are linked, speculates Bronwyn Bruton, as international criminal syndicates previously involved in weapons and drug trafficking “[jump] on the pirate ship” as a new source of revenue. This claim was reiterated by Abdel Fatua Musah, Director of Political Affairs for the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who reported to the UN Security Council that piracy has dovetailed into other forms of transnational organized crime.
Piracy and theft are believed to cost Nigeria 7% of its annual oil revenues. Benin’s port of Cotonou—taxes from which account for 40% of the country’s GDP—is witnessing a reported 70% decline in shipping activity due to piracy.5 In total, it is estimated that piracy costs the littoral states of the Gulf of Guinea an annual $2 billion in stolen cargo, rising insurance premiums, and other security costs. As the menace expands, the export of metals, cocoa, and agriculture products—vital to both local development and world markets—will also come under threat.
James Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist at Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is a modified form of James’ work with the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Programpublication “From Sea to Sea: The Search for Maritime Security“.
1. Martin Murphy, Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, London: Hurst and Company, 2009, pg. 117
2. Ibid, pg. 119
3. Ibid, pg. 122
4. International Maritime Bureau, “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for 2011,” International Chamber of Commerce, January 2012.
5. “An Emerging Threat? Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea”.