The World’s Most Violent Pirates
West Africa is home to the world’s most violent pirates who are now capable of overwhelming armed guards
The World’s Most Violent Pirates
By: James Bridger
West Africa is home to the world’s most violent pirates—who are now 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 proved inadequate and ill-suited to local conditions.
On the night of April 29 pirates attacked SP Brussels about 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; they failed to reach the citadel.
That incident and others like it highlight three important issues that distinguish West African maritime crime from that in other parts of the world.
First are the distinctive operating environment, in which international naval patrols are absent; the limited response capacity of regional security forces; and the prohibition on the use of foreign armed guards.
Second is the uniquely violent nature of Nigerian pirates and their propensity to engage in shootouts with security forces.
Finally, there are the multiple shortcomings of using local armed guards aboard vessels and the inherent danger the shipping industry faces in being overly reliant on that 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.
Those 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. Those 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.
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 toward crew members) than those in the Western Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. West African pirate attacks have also become more violent over time, the report notes, particularly from 2011 onward. International Maritime Bureau data records show more crewmembers were injured and killed off Nigeria than other country from 2012 to the 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 crew hold no value for the pirates, and are thus considered disposable assets.
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