All posts by James Bridger

James M. Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist with Delex Systems Inc. He can be reached at jbridger@delex.com

Disturbing the Pond: A Missing Tanker in the Gulf of Guinea

MT Fair Artemis. Image (c) MarineTraffic.com/Mgklingsick@aol.com

MT Fair Artemis. Image (c) MarineTraffic.com/Mgklingsick@aol.com

By James M. Bridger, Delex Systems Inc.

A Greek-owned oil tanker that lost contact with its owner after the evening of June 4 is still missing and presumed hijacked in the pirate-prone Gulf of Guinea. The MT Fair Artemis was last reported operating some 40 nautical miles SSE off Accra, Ghana and is laden with a cargo of gasoil. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is treating the vessel’s disappearance as a possible hijacking, while local naval forces have mobilized in a search.  

A senior port official in Tema, Ghana claims that the vessel’s master sent a distress call on June 6, saying that the ship had been hijacked and was being looted as it was forced to sail east through the waters of neighboring Togo. Naval forces from Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria have all engaged in a search for the Fair Artemis, with Ghanaian military officials noting, “We are looking within the whole sub-region.” 

The Fair Artemis’s cargo and sudden disappearance fit the profile of the well-organized tanker hijackings that have plagued the Gulf of Guinea in recent years. If the vessel is under pirate control, its attackers have likely disabled the ship’s communication equipment and painted over its identifying markers. The pirates’ objective would be to sail the Fair Artemisto a safe location, most commonly off the western coast of Nigeria, and transfer the vessel’s valuable cargo to secondary vessels for onward sale on the regional black market.  

Disturbing the Pond

A tanker hijacking off Ghana would be particularly notable because the country’s waters have been a relative sea of calm compared with those of its neighbors. The anchorages of Lagos, Nigeria, Cotonou, Benin, Lome, Togo, and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire have all witnessed multiple tanker hijackings since 2010, while Ghana has seen only a handful of minor robberies at sea. Striking off Accra thus conforms to the pattern of the hijack gangs who have sought to shift their attacks to anchorages where they are not expected and where defenses are lowered.  Previous outlier hijackings have occurred as far west as Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and as southward as Luanda, Angola

Ghana Chart

The specter of Nigeria-based piracy expanding to its waters has weighed heavily on Ghanaian officials as the country continues to develop its offshore oil productioncapabilities.  Accra has acquired new patrol boats and surveillance aircraft in recent years and is in the process of launching a naval special forces unit. Ghana has also sought to improve its maritime situational awareness by implementing a Vessel Traffic Management and Information System to remotely monitor vessels and coordinate efforts among government and commercial stakeholders. A pirate hijacking off a Ghanaian port will damage the country’s reputation for maritime security and “reflect on the attitudes of the international shipping community towards our port,” notes Paul Asare Ansah, head of public relations at the Ghana Ports and Harbors Authority.

A Tough Neighborhood

Despite the progress the country has made towards securing its maritime domain, Ghana remains beholden to a neighborhood characterized by “sea blindness and mutual distrust.” Pirates, for example, have hijacked several tankers along the maritime border of Ghana and Togo and then fled across the sovereign boundary to avoid hot pursuit from national naval forces. The Fair Artemis’ prolonged disappearance and likely multi-national hijack route mirrors the January 2014 case of the MT Kerala, which pirates hijacked off the coast of Luanda, Angola and then sailed some 1,200 miles north to sell its stolen cargo in Nigerian waters.  

Pirate Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea: 2014 (OCEANUS)

Gulf of Guinea Piracy 2014 (Data and analysis from Oceanus and Delex)

Over 60 percent of pirate attacks go officially unreported in the Gulf of Guinea, as vessel masters weigh the costs of delays and inspections against the unlikely chance of a regional naval response. 

The Maritime Trade Information & Security Centre (MTISC) in Accra was established with international support in 2013 as a means to improve regional information sharing and response coordination. However, interagency information sharing and exchange of maritime domain awareness information was reportedly lacking during a recent international naval capacity building exercise, Operation Obangame Express.  

Regional maritime security cooperation is incrementally improving, and tanker hijackings have in fact declined from a 2011 high. The presumed pirating of the Fair Artemis, however, demonstrates that the hijack gangs remain regionally active and will continue to stalk assumedly safe anchorages.

James M. Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant with Delex Systems Inc. and the Director of Publications for CIMSEC. His current areas of focus and expertise address piracy, terrorism, and other irregular threats to global maritime transportation. He can be reached at jbridger@delex.com

West Africa: More Dangerous Pirates, Less Adequete Security

West Africa is home to the world’s most violent pirates—who are now proving capable of overwhelming armed guards. Last month pirates killed a crewmember during an attack on German-owned oil tanker. Instead of fighting off the pirates, the embarked security team retreated to the ship’s citadel safe room.

For the shipping and insurance worlds, the widespread adoption of armed guards aboard vessels essentially ‘solved’ Somali piracy, as no vessel employing them has been hijacked by pirates. An attempt to transfer this panacea to the pirate-prone waters of West Africa, however, has proven inadequate and ill-suited to local conditions.

On the night of April 29, pirates attacked SP Brussles 35 nautical miles off the coast of Nigeria. Local security forces guarding the vessel were unable to prevent the pirates from boarding and retreated to ship’s citadel along with the crew. The guards did not emerge until the following morning, only to find that the ship’s chief engineer had been killed and another crewmember injured as they failed to reach the citadel.

This incident and others like it highlight three important issues that distinguish West African from maritime crime in other parts of the world.

First is the distinctive operating environment in which international naval patrols are absent, the response capacity of regional security forces is limited, and the use of foreign armed guards is prohibited.

Second, is the uniquely violent nature of Nigerian pirates and their propensity to engage in shootouts with security forces.

Finally, are the multiple shortcomings of using local armed guards aboard vessels and the inherent danger the shipping industry faces in being overly reliant on this measure.

Getting Around the Neighborhood

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a Nigeria-centric problem that primarily occurs within 100 nautical miles of the coast and targets the ships plying the regional oil trade. Local naval forces have provided a modicum of security for transiting vessels, but their ability to respond to pirate attacks outside of territorial waters and secure anchorages is limited. The pirate’s proximity to shore coupled with local concerns over state sovereignty has prevented international naval operations from deploying as they have off Somalia.

These same confines have restricted Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) from operating in the region as national laws prohibit foreign guards from carrying weapons within the 12nm limit of territorial waters. For embarked security, shipowners are forced to rely on armed guards contracted from littoral states. These guns on deck, drawn from national police and naval forces, are often poorly trained and undermanned, making them ill equipped to match the threat they face.

Ultraviolence

A recent UN report found that pirate attacks in West Africa from 2006 to 2013 have been proportionally more severe (involving vessel hijacking, hostage taking and violent acts towards crew members) than those in the Western Indian Ocean and South East Asia. West African pirate attacks have also become more violent over time, the report notes, particularly from 2011 onwards. International Maritime Bureau data records show more crewmembers were injured and killed off Nigeria than other country from 2012 to first quarter of 2014.

Regionally distinct pirate ‘business models’ partially explain this phenomenon. When Somali pirates hijack a vessel, they must ensure that the hostages are kept alive so that ransom negotiations for the return of the entire crew and ship can proceed smoothly.

West African hijackings, by comparison, are usually “extended duration robberies,” in which the crew and vessel are only held hostage until the ship can be pumped of its petroleum cargo. When maritime kidnappings occur, pirates take only the most valuable (usually Western or Asian) officers for ransom while leaving the rest of the crew and vessel behind. Under both scenarios, the majority of the crewmembers hold no value for the pirates and are thus considered disposable assets.

Armed to the Teeth

West African pirates are also better armed and trained than other maritime criminals, reportedly wielding heavy machines guns, such as M60s, and RPGs. Many of these weapons are ‘legacy firearms’ circulating from previous African conflicts, while others are sold or rented from corrupt security forces.

This heavy armament is a product of the pirate’s proximity to their onshore bases in the Niger Delta, which allows them to carry more weight in weapons and ammo and less in fuel and water than their Somali counterparts. Nigerian pirates also display military-grade tactics, explains Kevin Doherty, Owner of PMSC Nexus Consulting, “they know how to skillfully maintain and fire their weapons, they ambush security forces, and they board vessels with tactical precision.”

The weapons and tactics displayed by the pirates are often superior to those of the security personnel hired to protect vessels, notes a report from the counter-piracy think tank Oceans Beyond Piracy. As a result, local soldiers contracted to guard ships have reportedly hidden during pirate attacks. “They hide, just like that,” exclaimed a regional seafarer, “When we ask them why they hide, their answer is simple, ‘The weapons of rebels and pirates are stronger.’” An alternative, often anecdotally reported explanation is that naval guards have colluded with pirates in exchange for a share of profits.

Nigerian pirates are often undeterred by onboard security forces and willing to use deadly force to achieve their objectives. While shootouts between pirates and embarked security are exceedingly rare in the Indian Ocean, they are becoming increasingly common in the Gulf of Guinea, resulting in multiple casualties.

 

Fatal Nigerian Pirate Attacks 2012-2014*
Date & Location Incident Details Casualties
February 13, 2012100 nm South of Lagos, Nigeria Pirates fired on, boarded, and robbed a drifting bulk carrier, MV Fourseas, off the coast of Nigeria. The pirates killed the ship’s Master during the robbery, while Chief Engineer died from injuries sustained during an attempted escape. Master and Chief Engineer killed.
August 3, 201245nm SW of Bonny Island, Nigeria Pirates armed with AK 47s overpowered the Nigerian naval personnel guarding an oil barge, Jascon 33, and kidnapped four crewmembers for ransom. Two Nigerian guards killed, two guards injured, four crewmembers kidnapped.
December 13, 201225nm SW offshore, Bayelsa, Nigeria Pirates armed with machine guns attacked an offshore supply vessel, PM Salem, and engaged in a 20-minute firefight with onboard security guards before retreating. One Nigerian guard killed, one guard injured.
February 4, 2013Lagos Anchorage, Nigeria Pirates attacked and boarded an anchored chemical tanker, Pyxis Delta, conducting STS operations off Lagos. The onboard naval security returned fire and eventually repelled the attackers. One crewmember died from injuries sustained during the firefight. Two pirates were also killed.
February 5, 2013Near Angiama, Niger Delta waterway, Nigeria Gunmen ambushed an Indian-owned oil barge as a Nigerian military detachment escorted the ship through the Niger Delta. Two Nigerian soldiers killed, one crewmember killed, three crewmembers wounded.
April 29, 201435nm W offshore Bayelsa, Nigeria Armed pirates boarded a product tanker, SP Brussels, underway. The onboard security forces fired at the pirates before retreating to the citadel along with most of the crew. Chief Engineer killed, Third Officer wounded. Two pirates were also killed.

 

The Wrong Answer

Armed guards aboard ships in West Africa do not provide the silver bullet security solution that PMSCs have in the Indian Ocean.

A key differentiator in the latter theatre is that ship owners have a number of tools for vetting the quality and compliance of the armed security they hire.

For example, the GUARDCON contract developed by BIMCO, the largest international shipping association, provides a standard agreement between ship owners and PMSCs that covers guidance on Rules of Force and other security issues. In addition, there is the ISO/PAS 28007 accreditation that allows PMSCs to certify their compliance with appropriate regulations and best practices.

Vetting and compliance is much more problematic in West Africa as vessel owners and Masters have far less oversight over the armed guards they bring aboard. Owners can either hire security forces directly through a local agent, or engage a PMSC to act as an intermediary to employ local guards and provide unarmed logistical support and leadership. In either case, BIMCO notes, the local security forces will operate under their own rules of engagement and cannot be bound to the provisions of GUARDCON.

When a vessel contracts local security, it is the soldiers’ commander, not the shipowner, who usually controls the number of guards posted. An undermanned and poorly drilled guard team bears responsibility for the fatality aboard the SP Brussels, argues Rene Toomse, CEO of the PMSC Aburgus. “What was missing,” Toomse explains, “was a guard assisting all the crew into the citadel while others were fighting with the criminals.” The vessel had only two armed guards onboard at the time of the attack, rather than the BIMCO recommended staffing of four.

Maritime insurers and PMSC owners have privately expressed reservations that an overreliance on onboard guards is contributing to lax safety and security standards in West African waters. One source close to the London insurance market noted a particular problem of vessels with embarked security rejecting advisories to avoid prolonged exposure in high risk-areas close to the Niger Delta, opting instead to save time and fuel by using shorter routes and “shooting their way out” of any potential pirate attacks. The majority of these incidents, it was further noted, are never reported to authorities and thus contribute to a cycle of inaccurate threat perceptions and inadequate security measures.

Multiple Layers

It is very unlikely that the laws barring foreign armed guards from West African territorial waters will change, despite pressure from PMSCs and shipping organizations. Concerns over sovereignty and control understandably run deep, particular in Nigeria, and the current regime of renting local guards to foreign ships is too lucrative to give up. Unarmed PMSC advisors working with local guards offers an improved measure of security, but BIMCO still warns that the ability of PMSC leaders to effectively control their teams will be limited.

As no single defense against West African piracy is impenetrable, a multi-layered security system must be implemented. This begins with a pre-transit risk and security assessment and requires up-to-the-minute information on pirate activity and vessel vulnerabilities. Communication security is also essential, as pirates are known to select their targets by obtaining route and cargo information from open and private sources. Vessel hardening measures such as the use of citadel safe rooms are key, but it is also imperative that crews are regularly drilled for emergencies. Vessels also need a well-staffed 24-hour watch duty as West African pirates primarily attack at night.

Even with all these measures in place, the most important lesson to draw from the SP Brussels and other fatal pirate attacks is that no vessel should ever be lulled into a false sense of security.

James M. Bridger is a Maritime Security Consultant with Delex Systems Inc. in Herndon, VA. His current areas of focus and expertise address piracy, terrorism, and other irregular threats to global maritime transportation. He can be reached at jbridger@delex.com

Puntland’s New President: A Maritime Security Outlook

After losing Puntland’s presidential election by a single parliamentary vote, incumbent president Abdirahman Mohamed Farole extended his congratulations to his opponent Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, a former prime minister of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). UN and EU envoys praised the autonomous state’s January 8 election, decided by the votes of 66 parliamentarians appointed by clan elders, as a model for Somalia-wide democratization. The maritime security community should also take note, as Ali Gaas, a U.S-trained economist, will preside over the original heartland of Somali piracy. One of the many issues facing the president-elect is what to do with the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF)—a marine militia described by its supporters as Somalia’s most effective counter-piracy force and by its opponents as the Farole administration’s Praetorian Guard.

Puntland president Abdirahman Mohamed Farole (left) and president-elect Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas (right).
Puntland president Abdirahman Mohamed Farole (left) and president-elect Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas (right).

A Controversial Legacy

Farole came to power in 2009, a year in which Somali pirates attacked over 215 ships and operated with impunity from Puntland’s shores. The president’s answer was the PMPF, an elite coastal force that would deny the pirates their onshore sanctuary. The marines, trained by a South African private military company and financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), quickly grew to a force of 500 troops supported by a fleet of small ships, aircraft and armored vehicles. Security operations commenced in March 2012 and succeeded in disrupting pirate bases across the remote Bari and Bargaal regions. In late December 2012, the PMPF rescued 22 sailors held hostage aboard the MV Iceberg for almost three years. With Puntland-based piracy largely eliminated, the marines turned their attention towards encroaching al-Shabaab militants, using their expat-piloted helicopters to provide air support during several skirmishes in early 2013.

While operationally successful, the PMPF was politically contentious. A January 2012 report from the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group lambasted the marines “as an elite force outside any legal framework, engaged principally in internal security operations, and answerable only to the Puntland presidency.” Later that year, the president’s son Mohamed Farole became director of the PMPF, a cause of inter-governmental tension given his lack of military experience according to inside sources. On October 29 2012, the marines blockaded the residence of Ali Gaas in order to prevent him from campaigning among local politicians and clan elders.

A Difficult Decision

Ali Gaas pledged to improve Puntland’s security during his victory speech, but has yet to comment on his policy regarding the PMPF. Piracy may be suppressed, but many gangs are now diversifying into other illicit ventures such as arms smuggling and protection services for illegal fishing fleets. An al-Shabaab bombing against a PMPF convoy on December 5, 2013 further underscores the high level of insecurity that persists in the region. In the face of these challenges, what might the new president’s plans be for the contentious marine force?

Though the marines would later be used to impede his campaigning, it is important to note that Ali Gaas was a vocal supporter of the PMPF during his tenure as TFG prime minister from June 2011 to October 2012. When the UN Monitoring Group accused the PMPF’s South African trainers, Sterling Corporate Services, of breaking the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia, Ali Gaas responded with an official letter on November 16, 2011, advocating that the UN “approve the waiver for training and enforcement capabilities for Puntland State of Somalia to actively fight piracy and strengthen regional and maritime security.” A month later, the prime minister’s office re-clarified that “the TFG fully supports the efforts of Puntland authorities.”

Despite the labeling of the Puntland marines as Farole’s “private army,” it is unlikely that Ali Gaas will dismantle the PMPF when he assumes office. It is expected, however, that the outgoing president’s son and other Farole loyalist will not retain their leadership positions (whether they help themselves to the PMPF’s valuable collection of equipment and vehicles on their way out is another question). Securing a steady source of funding to maintain the PMPF’s marines, bases, vehicles, and expat mentors will be a pressing concern for Ali Gaas. The bulk of current financing comes from UAE, but it remains to be seen if this arrangement will continue under a new president.

The PMPF base camp in Bosaso, Puntland is the most extensive in the region (Photo: Robert Young Pelton)
The PMPF base camp in Bosaso, Puntland is the largest such facility in the region (Photo: Robert Young Pelton)

A Federal Marine Force?

There are indications that the former TFG prime minister envisioned the PMPF as a model of coastal security that could extend across Somalia. In April 2012, Ali Gaas’ office authorized Sterling Corporate Services to select and recruit soldiers from the Somali National Army to join the PMPF training camp in Bosaso, Puntland. The move was blocked by African Union (AMISOM) peacekeepers, however, which prevented the soldiers from embarking at Mogadishu airport. After the departure of Sterling in mid-2012, a US-registered security company, Bancroft, proposed a reversal of this plan, in which men and materials would be dispersed from the Bosaso base to a number of small coastguard cells across the Somali coast. This idea was rejected by the Farole administration, however, which was reportedly loath to cede control of its elite marine police force to the federal government.

Relations between Puntland and Mogadishu continued to sour over the next year. In late July 2013, the new Somali Federal Government announced that it had signed a deal with Dutch private maritime security provider Atlantic Marine and Offshore Group to establish a coastguard to combat piracy and secure Somalia’s exclusive economic zone. The deal received a hostile response from Puntland officials, who saw the contract as an “unacceptable, inapplicable and unsuitable” violation of Puntland’s territorial sovereignty.  In early August, the Farole administration suspended relations with the federal government.

With a former TFG prime minister now coming to power in Puntland, observers anticipate a more conciliatory relationship between the state and federal governments.  While a Somalia-wide coast guard or navy remains a distant prospect, the opportunity is now ripe for confidence building measures among local security forces. The PMPF maintains the most advanced training facility in the country and could once again offer to train marines from across Somalia if an acceptable deal can be worked out with the federal government and AMISOM. Supporting such an endeavor would be attractive option for the EU’s maritime security capacity-building mission (EUCAP NESTOR), which has thus far been unable to carry out its mandate in Somalia due to the country’s insecurity and fragile political arrangement.

While Ali Gaas may be tempted to keep the PMPF under the direct control of the presidency, a more advisable option would be for the Puntland parliament to pass legislation that defines the force’s power, status, and responsibility. Doing so could serve to legitimize the PMPF in the eyes of the international community, opening new lines of desperately needed funding. “There is internationally consensus that the PMPF should be ‘legalized’ and integrated into the regular security structures of Somalia,” an EUCAP NESTOR officer remarked, further noting that “The international community is studying how that best can be done and how the government of Somalia could be supported in that respect.”

Puntland’s model of democracy is unorthodox by western standards and so too are its maritime police forces. Both, however, have demonstrated resiliency in the face of great challenges and may come to serve as templates for the rest of the country. As foreign warships and armed guards begin to depart the Horn of Africa, local marines will be the only thing standing between the pirates and their prey.

James M. Bridger is Maritime Security Consultant and piracy specialist with Delex Systems Inc. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. James can be reached for comment or question at jbridger@delex.com   

Over at USNI – Nigerian Piracy in Context

Editor’s Note: CIMSECian James Bridger has a good piece up at USNI’s News and Analysis site debunking some of the myths of the “rise” in Gulf of Guinea piracy and placing the latest incidents, including the kidnapping of two American mariners on Oct 23rd in their proper context. Check it out here:

Kidnapped Americans in Context: The Shifting Forms of Nigerian Piracy

C-Escort
C-Escort, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore of Cut Off, La., is a sistership to the C-Retriever. American crew from the C-Retriever were kidnapped by Nigerian pirates on Oct. 23, 2013.