Call for military intervention to combat maritime kidnapping surge

The global shipping industry has sounded the alarm over a surge in kidnappings at sea, and called for greater military protection from pirates for vessels operating in dangerous waters.

Highly organised pirate gangs operating off the West African coast are increasingly targeting the crew of merchant ships rather than cargo or fuel, industry figures warned.

“What’s changed is the number of guys they’re taking ashore,” said John Stawpert, a security expert at the International Chamber of Shipping, a trade association for owners and operators. “Right now, the crew is where the money is.”

The 6,000km coastal strip from Senegal to Angola is “the most dangerous region in the world for mariners to operate, without a doubt”, said Munro Anderson, partner at Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence group.

While the Gulf of Aden off Somalia was patrolled by international navy fleets because of its proximity to the Suez Canal, the west African pirates were “able to operate with relative impunity”, he noted.

Robert Peters, senior analyst at crisis response company Ambrey, said: “It’s not just a group of guys with guns and a speed boat. We’re talking 30 or 40 men to a gang”.

The rise in kidnappings could increase the cost of transporting goods by sea, as well as make it more difficult for shipping companies to find crew. The threat of kidnappings led India to ban its seafarers from working on vessels passing through the Gulf of Guinea off west Africa.

Nigerian Navy special forces during a joint military exercise in Nigerian waters to combat piracy in November 2019 © Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty

The International Maritime Bureau, responsible for monitoring piracy, recorded 132 kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea this year, up from 119 over the same period in 2019.

Aslak Ross, head of marine standards at AP Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping group, said the risks had “reached a level where military capacity needs to be deployed to secure the safe passage at sea in the short term”.

Mr Stawpert agreed. “Without a meaningful and lasting naval response, shipping will continue to be vulnerable,” he said.

The west African kidnappers will typically demand $50,000 per hostage, a far smaller sum than the Somalia-based pirates who operated earlier in the decade who would ask for tens of millions of dollars for an entire crew.

“Negotiators [for the pirates] will go in with a target price and they tend not to budge,” said Mr Peters at Ambrey. Most shipping companies are covered by kidnap-for-ransom insurance and hire private security groups to conduct the negotiations.

Dirk Siebels, senior analyst at Risk Intelligence, a consultancy, said: “These groups are becoming much more comfortable keeping higher numbers of hostages and conducting ransom negotiations, which means they get more money and become even greedier next time round.”

While those engaged in low-level maritime crime hail from across the region, pirates committing the most brazen and complex kidnappings tend to come “almost exclusively from within Nigeria”, said Mr Anderson.

Map showing Gulf of Guinea: ‘The most dangerous region for mariners to operate’

Mr Siebels said another reason why pirates targeted mariners rather than cargo was to limit time on the target vessel to avoid being caught. “If you’re hijacking crew members, you only need to be on the ship for an hour or two, which makes it basically impossible to respond to,” he explained.

Fourteen of the 27 crew of a Liberia-flagged vessel that was boarded off the coast of Equatorial Guinea this month remain missing.

Nigeria, the richest Gulf of Guinea country, has increased its anti-piracy efforts by adding two new aircraft, three helicopters and 16 interceptor vessels to its fleet. Nigeria last year became the first country in the region to pass a law specifically aimed at preventing piracy, although critics pointed to the continued kidnappings as proof of its ineffectiveness. 

Bashir Jamoh, director-general of Nigeria’s Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, said infiltrating the pirate gangs would be key to preventing further attacks, along with greater international co-operation.

“There’s a need for collaboration between Nigeria and other African countries,” he said. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime last year warned that piracy had cost West African economies $2.3bn between 2015 and 2017.

Mr Anderson of Dryad Global said piracy could not be separated from wider issues of poverty and the absence of jobs and opportunities onshore. “What drives maritime crime is a potent mix of poor socio-economic conditions on land and a lack of security and counter-piracy activity at sea,” he said.

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