In the early hours of 18 January 2014 a 75,000-ton tanker, the MT Kerala, vanished off the coast of Angola. A sophisticated pirate gang hijacked the Greek-owned vessel, disabling its identifications system and communication equipment, and painting over its identifying markers.

More than a week later and 1,300 miles away, the hijackers released Kerala off the coast of Nigeria, after offloading 12,270 tons of its diesel cargo to other ships.

The Kerala hijacking marks the southernmost expansion of Nigeria’s pirate gangs, but represents only one subset of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The waters of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea each suffered pirate attacks in the first week of 2014.

Off Nigeria—the epicenter of western Africa piracy—there have been at least 12 attacks against various types of vessels this year, resulting in multiple kidnappings. Within the swampy maze of the Niger Delta, militants-cum-pirates have robbed passenger vessels, kidnapped oil workers and ambushed security-force patrols.

This level of organized piracy—as distinguished from opportunistic robberies against berthed and anchored vessels—can be sorted into two different categories: tanker hijackings for product theft and maritime kidnapping for ransom.

Both forms are intertwined with the regional oil industry, but their distinct perpetrators, targets, and trend lines warrant separate looks. First, tanker hijackings.

Tanker hijackings aimed at large-scale cargo theft first appeared off Benin in December 2010 and spread to the waters of Nigeria, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and Angola in subsequent years. This western Nigeria-based criminal enterprise is highly organized and intelligence driven, allegedly with the involvement of high-powered political, business, and military patrons. As an suspected hijacker captured near Lagos explained:

“We do not work in isolation. We have a network of ministries’ workers. What they do is to give us information on the location and content of the vessels to be hijacked. Once we complete the assignment, we would inform the pointsmen who thereafter, contact the cabal that takes charge of the hijacked vessels. We usually meet at a designated point on the high sea, from where they would offload the contents from the hijacked vessels and thereafter, deposit them in various oil facilities for distribution by oil marketers.”

The pirates who hijacked Kerala targeted the ship based on foreknowledge of its cargo, location and intended movements. Using a stolen tugboat as a “mother ship,” the hijackers made a multiday voyage all the way to a Luanda anchorage and then selected their target from some 30 other vessels in the area.

After hijacking the ship, the pirates sailed towards the Republic of Congo where they made their first sale of stolen diesel. The hijackers later made two more ship-to-ship transfers off the southwest coast of Nigeria before abandoning Kerala on 26 January.

If the pirates sold the diesel for half of its $10 million market price, they and their sponsors netted some $5 million in an operation that lasted just over a week.

The geographic scope of this particular crime demonstrates the expansive multinational network of informants and buyers hijack syndicates employ. While the leadership of the gangs is Nigerian, they are thought to recruit regionally, as indicated by the testimony of captured pirates and reports of pirates speaking both English and French during attacks.

A Product of the Environment

Nigeria produces some 2 million barrels of oil per day, but has the capacity to refine less than a fifth of that. Crude oil is exported to foreign refineries and then brought back into Nigeria and sold at government subsidized rates—a process that provides ample opportunity for corruption, theft, and piracy of all sorts.

The pirates’ hunting ground—the dense backlog of tankers waiting at anchorage across the region—is a product of this peculiar market. So too is the pervasive acceptance of black market petroleum—be it from illegal refineries in the Niger Delta, or illicit ship-to-ship transfers—that enables stolen cargos to be so quickly flipped.


Posted March 26, 2014 by rrts in -NEWS


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