West African pirates deploy new tactics

A range of factors, from local economic conditions to shifting tactics among pirates, may be behind a recent increase in pirate activity in west Africa. Credit: Getty Images

A recent spike in armed attacks off the coast of west Africa has been driven by a range of factors, from local economic conditions to shifting tactics among pirates, according to analysts.

In early April, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that its Piracy Reporting Centre had recorded 66 incidents in the first quarter of 2018, up from 43 in the same period last year. Of these, 29 – more than 40% – occurred in the Gulf of Guinea, compared with 7 in the area in the same period last year. Of the 114 seafarers captured worldwide, all except one were in the region, the IMB stated.

The surge in west Africa was probably due to a combination of factors, said Emma Mitchell, business director at UK security brokerage ASKET. This includes gangs “moving along the littoral to operate in less secure or monitored anchorages”, she said.

Mitchell also pointed to a change in tactics by pirates. “Rather than larger, organised groups, it is likely that smaller bands of pirates are boarding vessels with the aim of robbery and attempting hijacks if the opportunity arises,” she told Safety at Sea.

David Rider, an consultant for CSO Alliance, which facilitates the exchange of intelligence between company security officers, highlighted several issues in the region, including economic conditions and unemployment. He said the Nigerian Navy had made efforts to create checkpoints to suppress oil theft and maritime crime, but that pirates had recently changed tactics.

“Previously, pirates would board a vessel and take control, giving the navies in the region a chance to respond and track them down,” he said. “Now, pirates board, grab some crew, and leave, which means tracking them becomes much harder.”

Rider pointed to a number of steps that could be taken to improve the situation, including the adoption of “a much better information-sharing system” regionally and better co-operation in the area. “At the moment, when Nigeria clamps down on maritime crime, the gangs shift their focus to other regional waters, and more must be done to combat that.”

Mitchell highlighted a range of technological measures that could be taken, as well as “adapted BMP4 [Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy, fourth edition]-type measures, which are key to control access and ingress and the careful management of deck working routines”. She also said “a secure and equipped citadel has been proven to work time and again”.

The IMB report also highlighted incidents in other parts of the world. Mitchell warned that “crews should remain alert in many of the world’s riskier anchorages”, pointing to a number of areas, including southeast Asia and South America.

Rider echoed Mitchell’s emphasis on southeast Asia and pointed to the enduring potential of a spillover from the conflict in Yemen that could affect the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden.

Harry Pearce, intelligence manager at security services provider Ambrey Risk, also pointed to the danger from Yemen, as well as the ongoing risk off the coast of Somalia. With regards to Nigeria, he said there was “a window of opportunity” ahead of next year’s presidential election, with the rate of attacks likely to slow into the second and third quarters of this year.

“Together with the highly localised placement of recent incidents, the coming months afford the Nigerian Navy an opportunity to recover momentum,” he said.

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