Tag Archives: piracy

Legitimacy at Sea: Is Sea Shepherd a Navy or Piracy?

By Joshua Tallis

A recent pair of dueling articles on CIMSEC sparked a firestorm of debate. The point of contention: does the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s (SSCS) fleet of whaler-chasing ships constituted a navy? The conversation was lively, informed, and freewheeling, bouncing from historical examples of British privateers to modern day terrorists in a bid to pin down a surprisingly elusive understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. Interspersed throughout this debate is a conversation on legitimacy and how it relates to defining a navy. Legitimacy touches on nearly every component of the arguments put forth by both the Affirmative and Negative articles. It is my belief that the resolution to this debate lies, in large part, on how we interpret such a loaded word.

Legitimacy and the State

When we are talking about legitimacy in the realm of politics and violence, the most fundamental question in international relations is who has the monopoly over the legitimate use of force (a la Max Weber). In the Westphalian system (which, despite news of its untimely demise, is still very much in force), only the state has the right to exercise violence. Legitimacy, violence, and the state are inexorably intertwined. And, as the Negative article points out, violence is truly at the center of this debate. Navies fight; an organization that is not coercive in nature could not even make the prima facie case for being a navy.

As a consequence of this nearly 400 year old understanding of sovereign legitimacy, very few would argue that a non-state body has the legitimacy to exercise violence. Even the nations that allow Sea Shepherd to operate from their ports, as the Affirmative article notes does happen, would never permit the organization to roguishly harass, ram, or board ships in their territorial waters. In the more extreme instances where a state authorizes Sea Shepherd’s involvement in kinetic maritime security operations (as detailed in the comments by Captain Paul Watson, ostensibly the actual founder of Sea Shepherd), the very sanctioning of the use of violence by the state reinforces the argument that only the state has the authority to legitimately employ force.

The associated argument that some states do not de jure recognize countries like Israel or Taiwan, and thus defining a navy need not be tied to a nation’s legitimacy, is creative but erroneous. Such a claim obfuscates the reality of their universal de facto recognition as sovereign states around the world, despite occasional political fictions maintained for domestic expediency.

More to the point, legitimacy is granted as much (if not more) by domestic consent than external validation. Under this interpretation, we could more reasonably debate the merits of regarding something like Hezbollah’s maritime components as a Navy, since the group has some internal validity and some external recognition. Of course, labels like paramilitary or terrorist organization are more appropriate even in that instance, as the group’s position as a sub-state entity clearly invalidates the notion that it has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.

Legitimacy and Semantics

This question of legitimacy also bears on the historical point brought up by the Affirmative article of eighteenth century privateers. Putting aside that contemporary, professional navies would have been unlikely to regard licensed privateers as peers (despite the quite genuine might of the latter), the fundamental point that the sovereign granted letters of marque to deputize privateer fleets again underscores the notion that legitimacy for violence stems from the authority of the state.

This last point informs an argument in the Negative article that a military is differentiated from non-state groups by the scale of the force it can exert. A navy, it argues, has warfighting capacity that exceeds the capability or intention of a non-state group like Sea Shepherd. Such an argument is semiotic, a way of understanding something through comparison to known others. The problem, however, is that a semiotic (and not theoretical) definition is vulnerable to false equivalencies. If a privateer fleet rivaled the local power of the Royal Navy, as some pirate bands did in the Golden Age of Piracy, a semiotic definition would backfire and elevate them to the status of a navy. Today, if a non-state actor (say a cartel) had the power to topple a small Caribbean nation, would the cartel be a military? Using the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence as our yardstick, the answer is clearly no. This approach negates the need entirely to define navies by their fighting capacity (something small states will be happy to hear).

The MY Steve Irwin going up river through Tower Bridge London 12 September 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)
The MY Steve Irwin going up river through Tower Bridge London 12 September 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are, of course, other important questions raised in this debate. Most centrally, why does a fleet have to be a navy? If we already have a word to describe a collection of ships, is it valuable to take a concept like navy (however nebulous, at least you ‘know it when you see it’) and widen its use so far you risk entirely deflating it? The answer may well be yes, but it needs defending. Lexicons, even if somewhat amorphous, have inherent value. The Affirmative’s argument about a post ­Westphalian system is an admirable attempt to define the need for that new lexicon, though one I find highly premature (and I staked a dissertation on elevating the significance of non­state actors).

Defining Piracy

Finally, if (as I have argued) Sea Shepherd cannot be regarded as a navy because its use of violence is either illegitimate or state­sanctioned, a follow on question emerges: is Sea Shepherd piracy? The answer, like the former debate, is far from clear. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft…” UNCLOS has, in the past, come under fire for separating piracy and armed robbery at sea by drawing an artificial distinction between acts of predation within or without territorial seas. As a consequence, many bodies (including the UN Security Council) prefer some version of the International Maritime Bureau’s definition, which is less territorially focused and more functional. According to the IMB, piracy is “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.”

East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. (Wikimedia Commons)
East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem, here, with either of these two most common definitions (legal or de facto) is that Sea Shepherd clearly employs coercion or force for political ends, not personal or private ends. Political ends are not a component of these definitions. One option, of course, is to argue that there exists an even greater need for a change in the lexicon on piracy than on navies.

Refining Piracy

Pirates the world over operate for a mixture of both private economic and broader political objectives. Pirates off Nigeria steal oil not only for financial gain, but to help fund political agendas as well (piracy typically peaks near elections in Nigeria). Pirates in Somalia hijack ships for astounding ransoms. They also cloak themselves in narratives of defending territorial waters against the predations of multinationals depleting fishing stocks and dumping toxic chemicals. Even the privateers of old, who often morphed into pirates themselves, attempted to form politically independent units in the Bahamas or Madagascar and fought in part to defend this short lived independence from the British or French monarchies. Jacobite-leaning pirates in the Caribbean even considered trying to help reinstate the Stuart line.

Instead of revolutionizing the use of the term navy, therefore, might we instead simply apply the term piracy as it conforms to its historical character, inclusive of both private and political ends?

Conclusion

Sea Shepherd’s fleet does engage in maritime violence and coercive acts. This was a prima facie requirement for even debating its eligibility as a navy. As Captain Watson noted in the comments of the original article, “Since Sea Shepherd was established in 1977 we have rammed more ships, sunk more ships, boarded more ships and blockaded more harbours than most of the world’s Navies.”

Without commenting on the ethics of Sea Shepherd, the organization’s coercive actions are clearly illegitimate in the current international system. Consequently, Sea Shepherd might fit far better into an updated definition of piracy than of navy. Such a definition, which conforms to piracy as it has been practiced for centuries, recognizes not only the pursuit of private wealth, but also the role of pirates’ political agendas—even if those pirates are fighting for ocean conservation.

Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.

Featured Image: Sea Shepherd ship MV Gojira, presently the MV Brigitte Bardot. (Sea Shepherd photo)

Trilateral Maritime Patrols in the Sulu Sea: Asymmetry in Need, Capability, and Political Will

By Zachary Abuza, Ph.D.

A spate of shipjackings and kidnapping-for-ransoms has imperiled regional trade in Southeast Asia and prompted calls for trilateral maritime policing in the waters between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Though an important first step, this will not end the kidnappings or lead to an overall improved security situation.  

The Context

Starting on 26 March 2016, militants from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) began a spate of maritime kidnappings. Three Indonesian vessels and a Malaysian tugboat were hijacked, and some 18 sailors were taken hostage. 

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A screen capture from Abu Sayyaf’s fifth video of Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad (l), and Canadian, Robert Hall (r), released on 14 May 2016.

Their treatment was very different than the three Western hostages abducted from a Davao resort in September 2015. The two Canadians, Norwegian, and Filipina were held incommunicado for a period of time, with six videos demanding ransoms issued over seven months. The hostages were filmed in all but one video in front of the black flag of the Islamic State, and in the last two wearing orange T-Shirts, representing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit of Islamic State (IS) prisoners. The two Canadian hostages were executed when their ransom deadline, already extended and reduced, were not paid, on 25 April and 13 June. On 24 June, the ASG released the Filipina hostage as an “act of good will,” though, at the time of this writing they still hold the Norwegian prisoner.

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Photograph of the four Malaysian sailors, released via Facebook, on 15 April 2016.

The Malaysian and Indonesian sailors, by contrast, were quickly put in contact with their families and companies to arrange ransom payments. Although the ASG threatened to behead the four Malaysian sailors if no ransom was paid, there was no IS imagery in the photo posted on Facebook in the proof of life picture that the ASG released. In all three cases, ransoms were paid and the suspects released. Various press reports indicate that the four Malaysians were released with the payment of 140 million pesos ($2.97 million), while ten Indonesians were released following a 50 million pesos ($1.06 million) ransom, and the final four released with a 15 million pesos ($319,000) ransom. The payment of ransoms was always officially denied. While governments may have not paid the ransom, family members, shipping firms, friends, and insurance companies appear to have come up with the requisite funds. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged that money changed hands, but “channeled not as ransom, but to a body in the Philippines which assists in an Islamic struggle.” There is no ideology here, this is abject criminality.

Not surprisingly, with the payment of large ransoms, shipjackings/kidnappings have continued. On 20 June another Indonesian tugboat was boarded and seven of its thirteen crew members taken hostage. Though the remaining six were able to steer the ship to a safe port, the ASG is demanding $4.8 million in ransom for the release of the seven. Within days of the hijacking the captain was able to call his wife and convey the ransom demand.

The Costs

These shipjackings/maritime kidnappings imperil regional trade. While only a small amount of the $40 billion in regional maritime trade passes through these waters, it is not insignificant. Indonesian coal exports from East Kalimantan account for 70 percent of  total Philippine coal imports, worth over $800 million. There are an estimated 55 million metric tons of goods that transit these waters annually. These exports are all the more important as Chinese imports of raw materials from Southeast Asia continue to fall with China’s economic slowdown. On 21 April 2016, Indonesian authorities temporarily  blocked ships from sailing to the Philippines, warning that the waters were becoming the “New Somalia.” The small shipping companies run on thin margins, and the millions of dollars in ransoms pose a threat to the small-vessel maritime shipping that dominates the region. Following the 20 June kidnapping, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, announced a ban on licenses to ship coal to the Philippines from Indonesian ports, “The moratorium on coal exports to the Philippines will be extended until there is a guarantee for security from the Philippines government.”

Calls for Trilateral Maritime Policing

For the first time in many years, Malaysian and Indonesian leaders have been speaking of the Southern Philippines as being the weak link in regional security and began to call for trilateral maritime policing in  waters to the north and northeast of Sabah. There was a most un-ASEAN drumbeat of threats by Indonesian civilian and military leaders to engage in unilateral military operations to rescue their sailors. On 27 April, Philippine President Aquino acquiesced to Indonesian and Malaysian calls for joint maritime patrols based on the joint operations in the Strait of Malacca. 

On 5 May, the three foreign ministers met and issued a communique “recognized the growing security challenges, such as those arising from armed robbery against ships, kidnapping, transnational crimes and terrorism in the region, particularly in reference to the maritime areas of common concern.”

  1. To conduct patrol among the three countries using existing mechanisms as a modality;
  2. To render immediate assistance for the safety of people and ships in distress within the maritime areas of common concern;
  3. To establish a national focal point among the three countries to facilitate timely sharing of information and intelligence as well as coordination in the event of emergency and security threats; and,
  4. To establish a hotline of communication among the three countries to better facilitate coordination during emergency situations and security threats.
  5. They instruct the relevant agencies of the three countries to meet as soon as possible and subsequently convene on a regular basis to implement and periodically review the above-mentioned measures and also to formulate the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

With the agreement in principle, the sides had to negotiate a standard operating procedure, which had to have more teeth than a poorly implemented 2002 trilateral agreement to respond to Abu Sayyaf attacks.

On 20 June, the Malaysian, Indonesian, and Philippine Defense Ministers agreed to establish transit corridors. “The ministers have agreed in principle to explore the following measures, including a transit corridor within the maritime areas of common concern, which will serve as designated sea lanes for mariners,” they said in a joint statement. In addition, they pledged to increase the number of air and sea patrols as well as maritime escorts. 

Most controversially, the draft SOP will allow for the right of hot pursuit, something that the Indonesians insisted on. The Indonesian Minister of Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu told the media “We’ve agreed that if another hostage situation occurs, we will be allowed to enter [Philippine territory].” His Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, who was in the last week of his job, qualified the agreement: the hijacking/kidnapping must have taken place in Indonesian waters, before Indonesian vessels could enter Philippine territory, and Philippine security forces would have to be immediately informed so that a “coordinated and joint operation could immediately be undertaken.”

Limitations

Even if the three countries implement the SOP and begin implementing trilateral policing, there would be serious limits for seven key reasons.

First, this is not the Strait of Malacca, one of the most critical maritime straits in the world. Those patrols, now in their 11th year, have been successful and resulted in a dramatic drop in piracy and shipjackings. But they have benefited from members with very robust capabilities, such as Singapore and Malaysia, a critical international chokepoint, and with  technical support from the United States, which made it clear that if the littoral states did not increase patrols it would. The Strait of Malacca has the most sophisticated network of radars and maritime domain awareness capabilities in the region.

Second, sovereignty remains the paramount concern.  No country will allow “joint” patrols in their territorial waters. They might do “coordinated patrols” in their respective national waters, but there will be no joint patrols. Each country has been adamant on this point. As the Philippines said, “’joint exercises” can only take place “in the high seas and not within [Philippine] territorial waters.” As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi put it, any joint actions “must be agreed on without any of them sacrificing their sovereignty.”

Even the agreement on hot pursuit seems problematic. While Malaysia and Indonesian may be keen to have the right to hot pursuit into Philippine waters, it is hard to see them accepting one another exercising this right.  Second, the incoming Duterte administration has not signaled their approval of this agreement. It is possible that they do not feel bound by agreements signed by the outgoing Aquino administration.

Third, and more to the point, this really requires Indonesian leadership. As we have seen, President Widodo’s Maritime Fulcrum Strategy has been terribly implemented, and he has shown little interest in compelling his various services and ministries to come up with an integrated implementation strategy, let alone serve as a regional leader of ASEAN. The Indonesian military’s threat perception and budgetary allocation priorities have returned to an inward focus, after nearly a decade of maritime orientation.

Fourth, the capabilities of all three remain very limited. There is an asymmetry between the threat and the capabilities  deployed to this region. Even though Malaysia has beefed up maritime policing off of Sabah, especially following the incursion by Sultan of Sulu-backed gunmen in 2013, it has not been enough to prevent the ASG from still launching kidnappings. Malaysia and Indonesia have only limited naval, coast guard, and maritime law enforcement capabilities, and this region has not been a priority. The Strait of Malacca and increasingly the South China Sea have been far greater priorities. But those limited capabilities are exactly why cooperation is so necessary.

Fifth, there are still significant suspicions between the countries and lingering border disputes. The Indonesians remain distrustful and angry towards the Malaysians over the maritime demarcation between Sabah and East Kalimantan in the Ambalat region. On 26 June, Indonesian jet fighters intercepted a Malaysian military cargo plane flying too close to Natuna Island. While Indonesia and the Philippines successfully demarcated their maritime boundary in 2014, Malaysia and the Philippines do not have a formally demarcated maritime border owing to the disputed claim over Sabah. That may possibly worsen as president elect Duterte stated that he would revive the Philippine claim to Sabah which had been dormant for number of years.

EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The PH-RI EEZ Boundary is defined by geodetic lines connecting eight points. These points are indicated in geographical coordinates that form a single line as illustrated in the chart shown below. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8.
EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8. (Government of the Philippines/Government of Indonesia)

Sixth, one needs to study a map of the trade routes to understand that even if there is  international cooperation as well as designated corridors, they will only have a limited impact.

A majority of Abu Sayyaf operations occur in Philippine waters, and only a small portion occur in waters that may have joint patrols. If militants want to avoid Indonesians exercising their right to hot pursuit, they merely have to wait for targets to enter Philippine waters. Manila is unlikely to allow armed convoys from Malaysia or Indonesia, to continue into Philippine waters, let alone ports, even if they do not have the assets in place to receive the handoff.  The weak link remains the limited capabilities of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement authorities. What little the Philippines actually has is primarily focused on their maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Image courtesy of author)

Even if we take away the large LNG tankers and large container ships that come up through the Lombok and Makassar Straights, which then either continue on to Northeast Asia to the east of the Philippines or cut through the deep waters between the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Tawi Tawi Islands of the Philippines, there are simply too many small tugboats, small bulk cargo ships, and tramp steamers that ply those waters to protect.

Ships coming out of Balikpapan and Samarinda in East Kalimantan or Makassar and Monado on Sulawesi traveling across the Celebes Sea to General Santos or Davao in the Philippines could be better protected. Yet, ships leaving any of those four ports traveling to Cebu, Cagayan d’Oro or Manila must transit the waters around Jolo, Tawi Tawi and Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf’s heartland. Likewise, ships sailing out of Western Sabah or Sarawak states traveling to Manila, Cebu, or ports in northern Mindanao can operate at the furthest edges of Abu Sayyaf capabilities. But ships from there or from the port of Sandakan going to Zamboanga or east to General Santos or Davao must transit the pirate infested waters between Tawi Tawi and Basilan. Abu Sayaf can launch quick attacks from their hideouts along this poorly policed coastline throughout the archipelago. 

Again, the ASG can operate close to shore, in Philippine waters, without triggering the right of hot pursuit. And even if Indonesian or Malaysian forces were able to operate in hot pursuit, only on sea; they can do nothing when the Abu Sayyaf reach shore.

Finally, the lesson of Somalia is that international maritime cooperation cannot defeat piracy. Piracy is defeated on land, not sea. Despite ample support from the United States since 2002, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has proven unable and unwilling to  defeat the Abu Sayyaf group. This is a small group, geographically contained, and enjoys little popular appeal. Yet, they endure. There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the thuggish militants around. The ransoms not only go to bribing local officials, military, and law enforcement despite their vociferous denials, but local communities profit from the kidnappings as well. The proceeds have gone not just to buy new weapons and ammunition from the black market, but to support a sub-economy.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that new kidnap for ransom gangs are carrying out operations, and then selling their captives to ASG leaders such as Al Habsyi Misaya. The six Indonesian sailors who were not taken hostage on 20 June recounted that their seven colleagues were taken by two separate groups  with very different behavior and professionalism.

It is yet to be seen what approach president-elect Duterte will take. Like most issues, he has said one thing and immediately contradicted himself. He has has prided himself on the use of extra-judicial killings to eliminate Davao of crime and drugs, and said that Abu Sayyaf should be liquidated. He brashly warned the ASG that “there will be a time, there will be a reckoning,” but then said that it was not his “top priority,” and announced a willingness to negotiate with them. There is no evidence that they will accede to his demand that they “surrender unconditionally, release your prisoners, your hostages.” His messaging on the Bangsamoro peace process has likewise been contradictory, which has added to the sense of regional insecurity. 

Duterte recently warned that he would not continue the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program, re-orienting the security forces back to an internal security focus. The limited Philippine naval modernization program, may be very short-lived.  But then his Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana stated that the ASG was the country’s primary security threat, whose “illegal activities, including kidnapping, must stop,” Delfin warned: “We have to end this once and for all. This problem is giving us a very bad image abroad.”

In short, trilateral policing can only deliver so much until the capabilities of the Philippines improve. Delfin announced that military spending would be diverted from acquiring assets for use in the South China sea to fast patrol craft and helicopters for counter-terrorist operations. But it is hard to imagine that China will not act aggressively and start reclamation of Scarborough Shoal following an adverse ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, set for 12 July. Perhaps they will try to leverage that for further maritime assistance from the United States and other partners such as Australia and Japan.

Tempered Expectations

The frustration on the part of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments is palpable. In addition to hurting trade, a number of land-based kidnappings in Sabah since 2013, have impacted tourism.  Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman was blunt in calling for a meeting with his new Philippine counterpart following the 30 June inauguration of President Duterte:

“We need to have this urgent meeting. I would like to stress upon the seriousness of this problem that involves Filipino nationals. We accept that it is a complex issue. The Philippines military has been going after these people with limited success. The question now is how can we work together.”

So what can we expect? There may be some coordinated patrols,but expectations about what these entail should be low. These navies and maritime law enforcement organizations do not have a great track record of working together in this area, which for all three countries has received a disproportionately low share of their respective maritime security budgets.  

That they are even discussing them and trying to come up with standard operating procedures is well and good.  But this will need to be routinized and taken to a higher level if it is to succeed. Perhaps external actors, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and even Singapore, can help  bridge some of the gaps. 

The three sides are discussing database and intelligence sharing on local extremists and militants.  There have been suggestions of establishing joint military command posts, yet undefined. But an actual fusion center as what was established in Singapore seems a long way off, and the reality is that none of the three has adequate maritime domain awareness capabilities.

With regional trade dominated by slow tugboats and tramp steamers, even groups with limited capabilities such as Abu Sayyaf can wreak havoc in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. With limited capabilities amongst the three littoral states, there is an imperative to cooperation, especially considering the importance of regional trade. Yet a history of mistrust, continued border disputes, a fixation on sovereignty, and a lack of leadership is making the necessary cooperation more difficult to achieve.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.

Featured Image: A navy cutter patrols the shores of a fishing village near the capital town of Jolo in the southern Philippine province of Sulu 30 June 2000 as an outrigger races across its path. (AFP PHOTO)

Sea Control 117 – Niger Delta Pirates Declare War?

seacontrol2Niger Delta violence returns as oil prices plummet and both the Nigerian government’s ability and willingness to pay off former militants decreases. As the Nigerian Navy moves to counter this new violence, a largely unknown group called the “Niger Delta Avengers” has responded by “declaring war” on the Navy. Dirk Steffen, who recently published a CIMSEC article on this development, joins us to discuss the current situation in the Gulf of Guinea, the militant threats, government capabilities & intentions, as well as the methods and background of these pirate operations. 

This is not the podcast to miss! It won’t make you an expert like Dirk, but he’ll have given us enough information to pretend to be one by the end of the podcast.

DOWNLOAD: Niger Delta Pirates Declare War?

West African Navies Coming of Age?

By Dirk Steffen

On 11 February 2016, fourteen Nigerian and Ghanaian pirates in two speedboats attacked the product tanker MAXIMUS (ex-SP BRUSSELS) 70 nm south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They hijacked the ship with the intention to steal part or all of its 4,700 metric tonne diesel fuel cargo, sailing it to a position ca. 300 nm south of Lagos, Nigeria over the next few days. The case ended with an opposed boarding of the tanker by the Nigerian Navy, which left one pirate dead and six apprehended; the remainder fled on their support vessel, taking two crewmembers of the MAXIMUS as hostages.

What began as just another product tanker hijacking developed into a model case for regional maritime security cooperation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. The first asset to track the hijacked tanker was the Military Sealift Command’s expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS SPEARHEAD, stationed in the region for training and exercise support as a part of the African Partnership Station. SPEARHEAD identified the hijacked ship and shadowed it for two days as it sailed from Ivorian into Ghanaian waters. Then the CTF 63, Capt. Heidi Agle, handed over to the Ghana Navy, which continued to shadow the ship until it crossed the extension of the maritime boundary to Togo, about 200 nm offshore at that point. While Benin and Togo were not able to mobilise vessels to that distance from the shore, Nigeria was.

USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).
USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).

On 17 February the MAXIMUS, now re-named MT ELVIS-5 by the hijackers, had reached a position about 300 nm south of Lagos, roughly north-west of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. While an unknown mother ship had probably supported the actual attack on the tanker, another vessel, the small Cambodian-flagged tanker DEJIKUN, was likely used by the pirates in an attempt to steal part of the MAXIMUS’s cargo. The DEJIKUN was tracked heading south from Lagos on 16 February, arriving in the general area of the MAXIMUS on midday of 18 February.

The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).
The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).

Close on her tail was the Nigerian offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA followed by NNS SAGBAMA. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Navy’s Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP), Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, obtained permission to operate in Sao Tomé and Principe waters although the MAXIMUS was technically in international waters (albeit inside the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone). What followed on 19 February were eight hours of negotiations via VHF before a Nigerian Navy boarding team from NNS OKPABANA boarded the MAXIMUS in the evening of 19 February. The pirates briefly offered resistance, before one of their number was killed and the remaining six on board the MAXIMUS fled into the engine room where they eventually surrendered.

Both from an operational point of view, especially with regards to regional co-operation as well as from a tactical perspective, the mission was a success. None of the MAXIMUS’s crewmembers were injured, although several pirates escaped with two hostages onto the DEJIKUN. The ship was later found drifting off Benin, abandoned by the pirates who had also taken the hostages with them.

Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).
Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).

The liberation of the MAXIMUS was lauded as a model of regional co-operation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, even though Sao Tome and Principe, a nation with virtually no maritime security capacity, never reported to Nigeria or to the relevant Zone D reporting centre in the region (contrary to the official statements) when the MAXIMUS or DEJIKUN entered her waters. Nigeria eventually asked for permission to pursue the MAXIMUS into the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone under a bilateral agreement, which in the end achieved its objective, but also exposed some of the still extant weaknesses in the regional framework and capacities.

While diplomatically relevant, the message that the operation sent to the criminals was equally important: Gulf of Guinea states are increasingly willing and able to suppress maritime crime. It may only have been a beginning, but it may well be that the prospect of a forceful naval intervention has upset the plans of would-be tanker hijackers at a time when the economic situation in Nigeria is becoming increasingly conducive to the theft and smuggling of fuel into the country.

For the navies of the region, especially the Nigerian Navy, success may become self-reinforcing. The Nigerian Navy has long labored under its dismal performance and reputation relative to its assets and manpower potential. It remains beset by corruption and inefficiency, but it appears that the change that the Buhari presidency has brought over Nigeria may have begun to affect the navy as well. The Nigerian Navy had already responded with some alacrity to the brief hijacking (turned kidnapping) of the LEON DIAS on 29-31 January, the attempted kidnapping of crewmembers from the SAFMARINE KURAMO on 5 February near Bonny River Fairway Buoy and more recently, assisting the BOURBON LIBERTY 251, which had two crewmembers kidnapped on 23 February 2016. In all cases, the Nigerian naval vessels arrived well after the attacks, although in the case of the SAFMARINE KURAMO the attackers had to abandon their attempt to extract the crew from their citadel and were forced to leave the ship. While not entirely satisfactory to those involved, it is progress over previous years. Before, the navy hardly ever responded to distress calls at all, and when they did, it more often than not created bad blood between them and the merchant marine community through heavy-handed practices.

It is likely that the response to similar incidents will remain hit-and-miss for some years to come, especially if the circumstances are less favorable than in the MAXIMUS case. The MAXIMUS episode benefited from the presence of the USNS SPEARHEAD, which was conveniently deployed in the area for the upcoming African Partnership Station’s OBANGAME EXPRESS 2016 exercise (17-25 March 2016) as well as from some serious tactical mistakes made by the pirates. However, amongst other contingencies, the OBANGAME EXPRESS exercise series rehearses responses to precisely this type of scenario. In a way, the incident therefore reflects the journey the navies of the regions have made since the inception of OBANGAME EXPRESS and it will surely provide interesting input for the upcoming iteration of the exercise. The Nigerian Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok- Ete Ekwe Ibas, has credited OBANGAME EXPRESS with meeting its objectives. His challenge will now be to follow up and maintain, as he said, the “resolve of the navy to deploy more ships to maintain the current record of sea patrol in order to tackle maritime security challenges.”

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 and 2015 both at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.