Written by François Morizur for the Maritime Executive Pirates have demonstrated their ability to revise their modes of operation in response to maritime industry behavior and the responses of coastal states. When looking at the Gulf of Guinea, confirmed as the main world maritime piracy hotspot for almost five years, it’s interesting to consider that evolution.
Before 2010, piracy in the Gulf was limited to coastal areas less than 30 nautical miles from shore. As ships kept their distance from shore, the Pirates improved their range of operation with the use of mother vessels but also, very quickly, with a new capacity to operate their skiffs without mother vessels out to 100-120 nautical miles from shore. They improved their endurance, safe sailing ability, and communication to connect with their targets.
That quick evolution is, technically, impressive. Their means of boarding are evolving quickly too. Recent pictures of the attempted boarding of the MT Scarabe on March 25, 2020, off Nigeria, showed the use of an aluminum ladder estimated to be almost 10 meters long. The pirates were able to raise the ladder from a skiff sailing at high speed alongside the vessel.
The “rule” established in the past in the Indian Ocean (vessels traveling at 18 knots = no boarding ) is broken here. The pirates not only used the extension of their operational range to sail offshore, but they also sailed all along the West African coast to reach “soft areas” to kidnap seafarers. The ransom paid for the release of seafarers has increased significantly, with some cases reaching $1 million.
As pirates have demonstrated their ability to get ahead of the maritime industry’s defense strategies, it is interesting to try to determine what piracy will be like in the future. The Gulf of Guinea offers an important patchwork of maritime criminal acts with boarding, hijacking, ship to ship transfer on hijacked tankers, and kidnapping. The illegal bunkering occurring in the innumerable and difficult to control Delta creeks constitutes a natural fertile ground for generating finances easily that are then used to fund piracy acts offshore.
The current economical crisis will probably have an impact on military funding and the number of naval platforms used for maritime security, leaving the pirates with increased freedom to operate.
The threat of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea could expand in the following ways:
Identification of the “soft” areas
Recent attacks, such as the Blue Marlin incident in May 2019, show that pirates are operating in the waters near West Malabo and South Nigeria, presuming it was a non-militarized area. It’s probable that, as pirates can currently operate more 150 nautical miles from shore without the need for a mother ship, that they will pursue these areas more in future.
Kidnapping in non-protected anchorage areas
Kidnapping in non-protected anchorage areas is the main offshore kidnapping model currently. Establishing security coverage within these anchorage areas remains expensive (a security vessel with a military team embarked). The vessels likely to be targeted by pirates will be impacted by the economical crisis and therefore remain anchored for a long time with reduced crew and frequently dozing ISPS watch.
The pirates currently use aluminum ladders fitted with hooks, and there are several options featuring reduced weight but providing the same functionality at medium cost and high efficiency. Despite the difficulties involved in handling the boarding equipment currently used, the boarding rate in Gulf of Guinea is already very high.
Extension of criminal range
1. Nigerian anchorages (Cotonou, Lome, Limbe, Douala, Port Gentil) have been visited by pirates in recent months. Numerous crew have been abducted, then mainly released within the Delta. Concerned countries have established complementary measures: permanent military patrols and/or a Navy security team will embark as soon as vessels are anchored. The pirates will probably extend theirs range and test others anchorage areas still unarmed.
2. The vessels in transit within the Gulf of Guinea use a security escort vessel when crossing the 100-120 nautical mile line from the shore. An extension of this range would be difficult for logistics reasons (security vessel autonomy) and for economical reason (a security vessel’s day rate is around $10-12,000). The pirates, capable of operating beyond this horizon, more 120-140 nautical miles from shore, will probably continue to search for vessels without constraint knowing they won’t face the threat of a quick response from a military vessel.
The main target of pirates in the Gulf of Guinea is currently expatriate crewmen. 151 expatriates were abducted in 2019. This number was 116 in 2018, 69 in 2017, and 38 in 2016. It’s probable that kidnapping will remain high in 2020 and the years to come. The mass abduction of around 20 crewmen has become the habit since mid 2018.
The main reason seems to be that pirates can then demand huge amounts of ransom money. The average ransom has multiplied 400 percent in the last three years. It’s uncertain whether or not this approach will last into the future as the management of 20 abducted crew members raises both health and logistics issues for the pirates. In 2019, two crew members died during their abduction. So, it is possible that the number of crew members abducted will reduce but the amount demanded for ransom will remain the same. The abduction of the complete crew, of course, creates a new risk as the vessel is left drifting, unmanned.
Well-structured pirate groups can rely on an information network spanning port areas all along the West Africa coast. These intelligence networks provide information about vessel, crew, loading, planning, and future ports of call. On the internet, some paid services enable location of the global fleet, in snapshot. Currently, one of these providers offers access for less than $1,500 per year. The service allows the user to locate a specific vessel, to know its departure location, future ports of call, ETA at those ports of call, route and speed. All this information can be easily transmitted to a marauding speed boat (most pirate speed boat are fitted with a satphone), enabling them to be guided to a meeting point for an attack or boarding, day or night.
On April 9, 2020, the container ship Fouma was attacked by pirates when sailing inbound to Guayaquil, Ecuador. The pirates opened around 15 containers that were loaded onboard looking for high-value goods.
Recent cyberattacks, such as the recent one on the MSC websites, show that the identification of containers carrying high-value merchandise by cybercriminals is possible, but would only be realistic on small container ships. Missions to obtain high-value cargoes and sell them on the black market have already occurred. Tanker hijackings that occurred between 2010 and 2013 involved the prime contractor paying the pirate group around $250,000 to hijack a targeted tanker and bring it to an illegal ship-to-ship transfer location.
The maritime industry is evolving with effort directed to reducing the number of crew onboard vessels. More and more, maritime companies are developing ways of performing management functions from shore. Several studies are emerging that propose operating vessels unmanned, at least for the transit offshore. Cyber attacks could evolve to the point where pirates can take command and control vessels. Already in 2019, one operator revealed that the IT system managing ballast water of one of its oil platforms was infiltrated by malware, creating a stability risk.
Recently, a ransomware attack caused a U.S. natural gas compressor facility to shut for two days. The hackers sent emails with a malicious link, known as a phishing attack, to gain control of the facility’s information technology system. After analysis, it likely appeared that the attacker explored the facility’s network to “identify critical assets” before executing the cyber attack. This type of cyber attack could be used to take control of a vessel, stop the engines, disrupt the navigation equipment, etc. It could facilitate a more usual piracy attack but also generate ransomware with the aim of threatening to block the commercial business of the targeted maritime company if it did not pay the ransom.
Is this the future pirate 2.0?
François Morizur is a maritime security expert and former French Navy officer.