Wielding machine guns and RPGs, sea-faring criminals kidnapped 135 people last year alone – the highest figure in ten years – with a record number being snatched in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa.
Experts told The Sun Online pirates are turning to kidnapping as they consider it a much easier and more lucrative way of making cash than stealing cargo.
Pirate abductions are terrifying and brutal as the armed gangs storm vessels before victims are often subjected to beatings and torture.
International Maritime Bureau chiefs revealed 2020 saw the highest number of total pirate attacks of any kind in three years – with 195 worldwide.
And some 135 people taken hostage worldwide in 22 separate incidents in 2020, with a record-setting 130 of them snatched in the Gulf of Guinea alone.
The Gulf is shared by the coasts of Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Cameroon as it covers 888,000 square miles.
James Hilton, a former Royal Marines officer and captain who now operates maritime security firm Protection Vessels International, told The Sun Online how groups of pirates armed with AK-47s see ships and boat crews as “easy pickings”.
With the pandemic ravaging the region, he predicts more criminals will take to the seas, with gangs able to earn around $50,000 per ransomed crew member.
Calls have been made to ban paying ransom to pirates, but with big shipping companies being covered by kidnap and ransom insurance, there seems to be little chance of that happening.
Mr Hilton told us: “There are lots and lots of factors that contribute to increases in piracy and the obvious one is the COVID situation.
“The global pandemic is having quite a significant economic impact and that’s likely to leave a short-to-medium term legacy in more deprived parts of the world.”
Mr Hilton added that it was not just piracy ship crews had to worry about in the region.
“On a lower level is just robberies at anchor, and that’s pretty commonplace across the whole of the west of Africa, it’s not just the Gulf of Guinea.
“You’ve got robbers that will board a vessel at night with knives and guns, and steal your pocket watch and your gold teeth.”
Munro Anderson, senior analyst at Dryad Global, the maritime security and risk management firm, told The Sun Online: “Kidnappings, in contrast to robbery, are conducted by pirates that are part of established organized crime organizations.
“Their preference for kidnappings is rooted in the relative low risk coupled with the economic incentive of ransom payments.
“These payments average $50,000 per crew member.”
Dryad Global have revealed the horrific conditions some captives are subjected to – such as being stripped naked and forced to stand in the rain for hours.
Victims may be tortured by having bullets fired around their feet as they are continuously told they will be killed if they fight back, and are subjected to beatings if the hostage negotiations do not satisfy the pirates.
“Every minute, every second, is kind of a torture, You’re just surviving,” one survivor said in a report by Dryad.
The warning comes as 15 Turkish sailors were kidnapped from container ship the Mozart as it sailed through the Gulf – with one crew member being killed in the raid after it departed Lagos, Nigeria.
The gang reportedly used explosives to breach the ship’s protective citadel in a “sophisticated and well-orchestrated” attack before they led the crew away at gunpoint after beating them.
The crew members were released last week and told of being held captive in a forest by armed guards – but no further details have been revealed of their release.
The IMB reports warns all waters in and around Nigeria are now at risk due to heavily armed pirates hijacking ships and kidnapping crews.
It also expresses worry at how pirates in the region are becoming more organised.
The report states: “The kidnapping of multiple crews at such distances does, however, illustrate how well organised pirates are.
“This is a developing and worrying trend as on average, crew were kidnapped from 25% of vessels attacked in the Gulf of Guinea.
“In 80% of the Gulf of Guinea incidents, the attackers were armed with guns.”
Nigeria and other nations on the West African coast are proving to be new key stomping grounds for the pirates.
US journalist Michael Scott Moore was held for a staggering 977 days after he was captured by pirates in January 2012.
Moore’s wrist was broken in the abduction and he watched another captive being tortured during his imprisonment – pirates hung the hostage upside down from a tree and beat him with a bamboo cane.
“I was just afraid,” Moore told NPR. “I was afraid of what was about to happen.”
He was constantly moved around from place to place, including being put on the captured Naham 3 ship with its crew – some of whom remained hostages for five years – while his kidnappers negotiated his ransom.
They demanded $20million for his release, but Moore’s mum negotiated them down to $1.6million.
In September 2014, two-and-a-half years after his capture, Moore was finally released when the ransom was paid.
“People say, ‘You must have been overjoyed,’ but any ransom is a filthy compromise, and I had long ago given up on hope as a dangerous indulgence,” Moore wrote in The Guardian.
In a bizarre twist, one of his captors began sending Moore friendly messages on Facebook two months after his release.
The pirate was ultimately arrested and charged with kidnapping, hostage taking, and other crimes.
Brits Paul and Rachel Chandler were also held for 388 days after being kidnapped from their yacht by Somali pirates in 2009.
The couple, from Royal Tunbridge Wells, were spending their retirement sailing around the world when they were captured after departing the Seychelles.
After initially demanding a £4million ransom, the pair were released after Somali officials negotiated a £600,000 release.
Both suffered health problems at various times and complained of ill-treatment by their captors.
Piracy in its traditional modern home of Somalia has been declining amid an international effort with heightened security to beat the crooks.
Mr Anderson told The Sun Online: “The key difference extends to the focus of piratical activity.
“East African Piracy very much included an intent to hijack vessels and kidnap crew together with the intent of attracting larger sums.
“This was partly driven by the ease of hiding tankers within Somali ports, due to the lack of formal port authority or law enforcement.
“Within West Africa, this is not the case, offshore acts of piracy are almost exclusively conducted with the intent of kidnap for ransom of the crew, with incidents of hijacking often limited to smaller vessels such as fishing vessels which are likely to be used as mother vessels.”
With attacks increasing in the Gulf, the IMB has called for more to be done to stop piracy spreading to other areas.
It has stated: “While regional and independent international navies, deployed in the region, have acted promptly to render meaningful response there remains an urgent need to address this crime which continues to have a direct impact on the safety and security of innocent seafarers.”
The Gulf of Guinea is not only one of the world’s most important trade routes, it is also a major energy supplier.
The Gulf supplies around 40 per cent of Europe’s oil and 29 per cent of the US total.
Piracy came home to Britain last year when heavily-armed anti-terror troops had to storm a hijacked ship off the Isle of Wigh after stowaways allegedly posed a threat to the crew’s life.
It is big business for the criminals – with some estimates put economic losses from piracy as high as $13-16 billion (£10-12 billion) every year.