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West African pirates hijacking larger vessels to maximise ransom returns

Time is no longer on the side of the pirates as they expect to be detected quickly after an abduction. What is more, many attacks are being repelled. The obvious answer for the pirates to those two problems is to maximise returns by abducting more people in one go

West African gangs are extracting $30,000 to $50,000 per kidnapped crew member from insurance companies

INSURERS are making ransom payments to West African gangs of $30,000 to $50,000 per kidnapped crew member, amid warnings that changing piracy tactics have placed vessels at risk of increasingly violent attacks in the Gulf of Guinea over coming months.

Stephen Askins, a London-based maritime lawyer who specialises in piracy at Tatham & Co, where he is a partner, says Nigerian pirate gangs are now “maximising returns” by seeking to seize larger vessels in order to abduct higher numbers of crew. The spotlight is now on the Nigerian navy’s response, he said.

In a soon-to-be published paper, Mr Askins said pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are at greater risk of discovery by the military or other gangs, limiting the amount of time crew can be held. “They have no desire to hijack and hold a vessel. Unless they have immediate access to the crew, they leave,” the paper said.

This is unlike the piracy model seen in Somalia eight years ago, when hijacked ships and crew were held hostage for months, even years, off the country’s coast before their release was negotiated and a multi-million dollar ransom paid.

“Without the luxury of time, with more attacks being repelled then the obvious answer to maximise returns is to take more people,” Mr Askins said in his paper ‘Nigerian Piracy — have we reached a tipping point?’

The Gulf of Guinea is the world’s most violent and dangerous maritime region, with the numbers of hijacked vessels and crew abducted for ransom soaring in the last month of 2019. Thirty-eight crew were kidnapped alone in attacks on two vessels over December, including the very large crude carrier Nave Constellation and product tanker Duke. A further suezmax tanker and liquefied natural gas carrier also successfully repelled armed attacks.

The actions of the Nigerian navy — which freed three crew from the dredger Ambika after a three-hour gun battle on January 13 — will be watched carefully, Mr Askins told Lloyd’s List in a separate interview.

“It’s going to be interesting to see whether this is a tipping point — whether the navy really do now feel they’ve got to increase the risk (for pirates). From the Ambika, you can see that they clearly were resolved to do something about it.”

Mr Askins said there was a hijacking attempt on a vessel in the Gulf of Guinea less than 24 hours ago and pirates were still active. Crew from the last remaining vessel being held hostage were likely to be released shortly. This would leave the pirates without any further income and incentivise them want to to kidnap more crew.

“The January, Feburary, March months are a busy period. You will see a lot of activity over the next seven to 10 days until they’ve caught another one,” he said.

Sizeable ransoms paid for kidnapped crew perpetuate the cycle, said Harry Pearce, Intelligence Manager for England-based Ambrey, a maritime intelligence and security company.

Attacks were staged against “soft targets routinely trading within West Africa and plying established (predictable) routes,” he told Lloyd’s List.

“These latest attacks fit a trend — for consecutive years since 2017, attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have been further offshore Nigeria and have been increasingly dispersed. It is this, and target diversification, that is making the operating environment increasingly difficult to secure.”

Mr Askins said that the odds of piracy success “very much favour a determined group against a vessel transiting the area without an armed escort vessel”. Gangs in and around the Niger Delta were being fed information about vessel movements, which are then confirmed via Automatic Identification System signals.

“Those vessels that are preventing pirates from boarding are relying in particular on the use of citadels and occasional intervention by local naval forces and embedded security teams provided by the Nigerian Navy,” he said.

Weak governance and widespread corruption, as well as an inability to use armed maritime security guards at all times, has hampered piracy prevention in the region. The Niger Delta has been a piracy and robbery hotspot for many years. It used to be the case that the cargo would be stolen, rather than the crew kidnapped for ransom.

Violent attacks on seafarers and the extremely poor conditions in which they are being held have further raised the stakes for shipowners and charterers.

Two crew died during their ordeal over December, both from illnesses contracted while being held hostage in a remote jungle location.

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