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West Africa's Pirates Are Changing Tactics Because of Cheap Oil

Pirates who have relied on hijacked oil tankers in the region for profit have had to adapt to low oil prices, switching to kidnapping for ransom as their primary focus.
May 3, 2016, 7:30pm
Photo via Reuters

Petrostates around the world have endured tanking revenues and high inflation rates as the price of oil has fallen precipitously over the last two years — but it's becoming increasingly clear that criminal operations that exploit the industry are also feeling the pinch.

Even pirates in West Africa who have relied on hijacked oil tankers for funding have had to adapt to the age of cheap oil, switching to kidnapping for ransom as their primary focus.

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Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which sits off the coast of West Africa along countries like Nigeria and Cameroon, cost more than $700 million last year, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), which promotes long-term solutions to maritime banditry.

There were 54 attacks in 2015 overall, down from 67 the year before. A majority of them were kidnappings, however, rather than the oil tanker hijackings for cargo theft that accounted for the majority of piracy assaults in previous years. Oil tankers were targeted in just 18 percent of these maritime attacks, compared to more than 50 percent in 2014.

The combination of Nigeria's increased efforts to secure the waters off its coast with the fall in oil prices likely contributed to the shift in piracy tactics, according to OBP project manager Matthew Walje.

"A lower payout at the end made it so it was no longer an economically viable model," he explained. "So what they did instead was switch to a kidnapping for ransom model…. It takes just a few hours."

Related: Pirates Could Make a Comeback as Illegal Fishing Returns to Somalia's Coast

Hijacking oil from a tanker requires several pirate vessels and a significant amount of time before authorities arrive on the scene in order for the theft to be carried out. Ramped-up patrolling of Nigerian waters and oil's diminished profitability have made robbery too costly.

Kidnapping, on the other hand, can be done relatively quickly — the pirates storm a ship, identify who to take and what valuables to steal, and then concentrate on evading security as they make off with their hostages.

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The OBP report highlighted a disturbing increase last year in the use of violence during maritime assaults in the Gulf of Guinea. Victims at sea have been beaten, tortured, given little to eat, and subjected to mock executions. The region has seen new players getting involved in piracy. Walje explained that some of the gangs operating in the gulf are the same ones that have operated within Nigeria, where kidnapping is a common crime.

Despite the trends in West Africa, on the other side of the continent in East Africa the once-notorious network of piracy off the coast of Somalia continued to see a decline in activity, with just nine suspected piracy incidents in 2015. The decline can be attributed to a global and regional patrolling effort involving international naval ships, armed guards on private vessels, and the establishment of a special court in the Seychelles to try piracy.

In 2010, at the height of piracy off the coast of Somalia, 49 ships were captured in the region while only four other vessels were hijacked in the rest of the world's waters. While it's unlikely to see this level of activity return, Walje warned that the threat of piracy could grow as the shipping industry and international naval efforts in the region relax in the face of subsiding attacks. The naval presence in Somalia's waters dropped 15 percent between 2014 and 2015, with commercial ships increasingly less likely to post armed guards on board.

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"Somali pirates still pose a threat to seafarers operating in the region," Walje said.

Related: Pirates Are Running Wild and Hijacking Oil Tankers in Southeast Asia

Declining occurrence of piracy and enforcement against it might encourage new offenders to try their hand at maritime crime, like authorities are seeing in the Gulf of Guinea. Walje noted that it's important to maintain a level of vigilance. For example, ships may decide not to employ armed guards and reroute closer to the Somali shore line as a cost-cutting measure now that the waters are deemed more safe, making the vessels more vulnerable to a potential assault should trends reverse — a recipe for disaster.

A similar trend occurred in recent years in Southeast Asia. Piracy attacks in the region peaked in the early 2000s, but a regional approach helped to reduce the prevalence of hijackings. As shipping companies and authorities grew complacent, however, piracy gangs in the region came back in force, prompting prevention efforts to kick back in gear. Regional efforts managed to successfully reduce the number of attacks in the second half of 2015.

Walje calls the boosting of naval patrols or on-board security "suppression" elements that get most of the anti-piracy funding, and doesn't see a way for them to be rolled back without improving justice systems and developing robust naval capacities in local countries.

"If you're not investing in long-term solutions, suppression measures have to stay in place at least in some ways," he said. "It's not a sustainable model otherwise."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB