Kidnapped Americans in Context: The Shifting Forms of Nigerian Piracy

October 29, 2013 9:23 AM - Updated: October 31, 2013 1:42 PM
C-Escort, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore of Cut Off, La., is a sistership to the C-Retriever. American crew from the C-Retriever were kidnapped by Nigerian pirates on Oct. 23, 2013.

The kidnapping of two American mariners on Oct. 23 does not signal the rise of a new piracy threat off Nigeria, but rather the re-emergence of an old one

U.S. news outlets were quick to proclaim piracy is now “skyrocketing” off the West African nation.

But those types of blanket statements fail to capture the fluid nuances of maritime crime in the region, which has largely decreased in the past few years.

An examination of pirate attacks reported to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) indicates that maritime crime has risen across Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea over the last two years, but is still below the peak rates of insurgency-related piracy seen in 2008.

That perception is challenged, however, by the more complete data set of the Danish consultancy firm Risk Intelligence, which records a decline in the absolute number of Gulf of Guinea maritime security incidents between 2008 and 2012. What really has happened off West Africa is a shift in the typology and geographic distribution of pirate attacks.

Graph I – Pirate Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea: 2008-2013*

GoG Pirate Attacks 2008-2013

Of Robbers and Oil Thieves

The catch-all label of “piracy” is applied to three different, yet overlapping types of mariitme crime in the Gulf of Guinea, each with their own perpetrators and patterns. Petty theft from anchored or berthed vessels is the most common but least significant form of piracy that affects vessels across West Africa and the world. The opportunistic robbers who attempt to stealthily pilfer everything from ropes to computer equipment are not usually part of larger syndicates and are thus of little interest to the study of piracy as an organized criminal enterprise.

A more significant and novel form of piracy to emerge in the Gulf of Guinea is the large-scale theft of petroleum cargos from hijacked tankers. Organized by politically connected Nigerian crime syndicates, such enterprises first appeared in the waters of Benin in December 2010 before spreading outward to Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Gabon in subsequent years.

The piracy tactic has now roosted in Nigerian waters, with at least three attacks on tankers occurring off Lagos during a single week in August of this year.

Tanker hijackings are now the world’s most lucrative form of piracy, as black market deals are pre-arranged to flip multimillion-dollar oil cargos within days. Risk Intelligence estimates that more than $100 million worth of product has been stolen from more than 35 tankers in that fashion since 2010.

Given their international profile, the rise of tanker hijackings prompted several inaccurate reports that the Gulf of Guinea has recently “emerged” as a “new” piracy hotspot. While tanker hijackings spread rapidly from late 2010 to 2012, successful attacks appear to be declining in 2013 as regional navies concentrate limited assets around anchorages and ship-to-ship transfer points where the vessels are most vulnerable.

The Kidnapping Comeback

Maritime kidnap for ransom is a form of piracy that is largely unique to Nigeria, but by no means new. The Oct. 23 abduction of the American captain and chief engineer of the offshore supply vessel C-Retriever can be seen as part of the re-emergence of a once-prevelent crime.

The kidnapping of foreign oil workers on land and at sea reached a peak late in the first decade of this century during the petro-insurgency waged by the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND) and other Delta militants.

Unable to hijack and ransom entire ships in the Somali fashion, Delta militants would most commonly seize an offshore support vessel, separate and kidnap the foreign workers, and hold them hostage in jungle camps until the oil and shipping companies paid discrete ransoms. Those types of attacks declined dramatically after a 2009 government amnesty program offered cash, jobs and schooling for militant leaders and their followers who would lay down their weapons and renounce the insurgency.

Graph II – Mariners Kidnapped for Ransom in Nigerian Waters: 2006-2013*

Nigeria KidnapsThe kidnapping of the C-Retriever’s officers bears many of the hallmarks of a MEND-style kidnapping. The vessel was attacked while moving between the offshore Agbami oil fields and Port Harcourt; the kidnappers took only the most valuable hostages; and a MEND spokesman now claims that one of its “heavily armed auxiliary outfits” is holding the hostages.

It is premature, however, to assume that this incident and other recent kidnappings represent the resurgence of MEND or the rise of a new piracy enterprise.

To begin with, the gangs engaged in maritime kidnappings in the Niger Delta are not thought to be the same as those involved in Lagos-organized tanker hijackings.

Rather, kidnap for ransom is a cyclical phenomenon that reflects a number of local social, political, and economic factors in the Niger Delta. The drivers range from aspiring politicians using criminal networks to embarrass incumbents, local communities attempting to leverage concessions from oil companies, or even criminals hoping to quickly raise money for Christmas shopping.

Maritime kidnappings are a lower-tech form of piracy than tanker hijackings, but there has been some recent advancement in the use of “motherships” to attack unsuspecting vessels operating up to 150 nautical miles off the Niger Delta.

While a representative of MEND claims to be in contact with the C-Retriever kidnappers, this is more likely a public relations maneuver from a largely decapitated organization than it is evidence of an insurgent-directed operation.

An increase in piracy and kidnaping is better understood as a fractionalization of the MEND insurgency, as it is junior militants—not their leaders—who have reverted to maritime crime after being left out of the amnesty program.

An interesting theory about the C-Retriever attack, put forward by gCaptain’s Rob Almeida, is that the vessel’s captain and chief engineer were kidnapped, possibly with collusion from the crew, as a form of local protest against the hiring practices of the vessel’s owner, Edison Chouest.

The company, it was revealed, had previously received an ultimatum from an Ijaw community threatening kidnappings if Edison Chouest did not hire more local workers from Bayelsa state.

If this is the case, then the kidnapping of two American mariners is mostly certainly a reversion to old patterns, not the emergence of a new threat.

James Bridger

James Bridger is a maritime security consultant and piracy specialist at Delex Systems Inc.

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