Vessels will continue to face a significant threat of kidnap for ransom in the region as pirates adapt their capabilities and tactics in response to ongoing security operations in the Gulf of Guinea, writes Darren Davids.
Despite ongoing security operations to secure the Gulf of Guinea (GoG), piracy and kidnap incidents continue to increase. The GoG remains to be the global kidnapping hotspot as it accounted for 95 percent of all crew kidnappings in 2020. These incidents of piracy attacks and kidnappings are taking place further offshore, pointing to the increased capability of pirate groups.
A CHANGE IN CAPABILITY
Up until 2012, pirate attacks in the Gulf were concentrated in coastal areas with the distance of attack averaging less than 40 nm (74 km) from the coastline. But pirates have started to operate further offshore and outside of Nigerian waters. This trend has increased in recent years as ships have sailed further offshore in attempts to avoid pirates. Indeed, since 2019, the average distance of attack has grown to 150 nm (277 km) from the coastline. In a demonstration of their increased range, in March 2021 suspected Nigerian based pirates conducted two separate attacks on tankers Davide B, and Bourbon Evolution 802 approximately 210 nm (388 km) south of Benin’s coast and 220 nm (407 km) from the coast West Bayelsa, Nigeria.
To reach targets so far offshore, pirates have increasingly made use of motherships – large vessels that can operate further offshore and for longer periods of time. Some groups have modified speedboats, which are often tethered to motherships, which use one lower powered engine for transiting, while the more powerful second engine is used for attack and boarding. Pirates’ increased use of motherships means that it has become increasingly difficult for ships travelling through the Gulf to mitigate the threat of pirate attacks, even with vessels sailing at greater distances from shore.
"Pirates’ use of motherships means it is becoming increasingly difficult for organisations to mitigate the threat of pirate attacks, even with vessels sailing at greater distances from shore."
Pete Doherty, Head of Crisis Response at S-RM, explains that pirates have also demonstrated growing sophistication when attacking ships. During an attack on a container ship in January 2021, pirates hotwired the ship’s emergency power supply to their electric saw and cut through the citadel – a room where the crew of the ship can hide in the event of an attack – and threatened to fire into the room. The crew was forced to open the citadel and the pirates kidnapped 15 crew.
Since January 2021, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has advised that vessels in the region should remain at least 250 nm (463 km) from the coast at all times. While pirates have not yet attacked ships further than 220 nm from shore, it is likely only a matter of time.
Conflict and crime related violence
In an attempt to curb the threat of piracy in the GoG, the Nigerian government has invested approximately USD 195 million in Operation Deep Blue, an initiative aimed at improving maritime surveillance and enforcement across the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This has included major expenditures on boats, vehicles, drones, and helicopters to patrol the Nigerian coastline.
Vessels sailing through the GoG continue to face a considerable kidnap risk. The Nigerian authorities’ latest efforts appear to have limited the number of piracy incidents off the Nigerian and Cameroonian coasts. But kidnapping remains a lucrative source of income. Over the coming months, any decrease in incidents in Nigerian and Cameroonian waters will likely be offset by more attacks in outlying areas, as security patrols push pirates to operate in neighbouring waters and further offshore