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World's Piracy Danger Zone Moves to West African Waters

You're more now more likely to be plundered by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea rather than off the coast of Somalia.

by John Dyer
Mar 19 2014, 9:45pm

Photo via UK Ministry of Defence

Yachtsmen would do well to avoid the coast of West Africa.

Stretching from Liberia to Gabon, the Gulf of Guinea has replaced the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia as today’s global hotspot for piracy, according to international insurance giant Allianz’s annual Safety and Shipping Review 2014.

The shift reflects how the world’s navies have been largely successful in their crackdown on Somali pirates in recent years. Whether they’ve been taking to the high seas in a desperate bid to earn a living or heeding the siren call of the Jolly Roger, many Somali buccaneers no longer want to pit their rickety wooden boats against well-armed helicopters and destroyers.

The crackdown at times has been more brutal than films like the Hollywood blockbuster Captain Phillips would suggest, said Charles Nolfo, a longtime shipping executive in New York who is a member of the trade association Intercargo’s Correspondence Group on piracy. American and European sailors often return captured Somali pirates to the shore after destroying their boats. Other militaries aren’t so friendly.

“Finding a country to accept the captured pirates and place them on trial has been a problem,” Nolfo told VICE News. “The Russian Navy that patrolled that area took a different approach. Rather than a ‘catch and release’ program, what they do is, they capture the pirates, blow up their boats and maybe help them disappear.”

Shipping companies reported 264 incidents of piracy last year, an 11 percent decrease compared to 2012, Allianz found. In Somalia, only seven attacks occurred compared to 160 in 2011, a decline of more than 95 percent.

'In West Africa, there’s more of a criminal element to it. It’s more scary.'

Piracy was on the rise elsewhere, however. In the Gulf of Guinea, pirates attacked ships 48 times last year, around 18 percent of the global total. Four years ago, West African pirates totaled only 7 percent of piracy worldwide.

Indonesia saw a total of 106 piracy attacks in 2013 compared to 15 in 2009, a 700 percent increase. But Annika Schuenemann, an Allianz spokeswoman, told VICE News the attacks in the 3,200-mile-long Southeast Asian archipelago were not as serious as those in West Africa.

“In Indonesia, it’s relatively low level,” Schuenemann said. “In West Africa, there’s more of a criminal element to it. It’s more scary.”

Targeting oil tankers or ships connected to the oil industry in order to steal fuel or equipment to sell in black markets onshore, West African pirates behave more like common criminals than their Somali counterparts, who a few years ago might win millions of dollars in ransoms for cargo ships and personnel.

“In Somalia, they made a business out of it,” said Nolfo. “In the early years, the ransom was dropped by the ship owner on the deck of the ship and taken ashore to be divided among the tribes. Later on, the Somali pirates had London lawyers involved. They had bank accounts in Geneva. It was sophisticated. They built schools, bought cars. You could say there was a Robin Hood element to it. It’s not a business in West Africa. It’s more piracy and thievery.”

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr

Photo via Flickr