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by Michael Meyer

Serious kidnapping cases are increasing in the Gulf of Guinea. Battle-hardened pirates are becoming more professional. Politicians and regulators are lagging behind these developments.

Pirates and shipping have formed an indissoluble relationship for centuries, imposed by one side but chained together by inseparable bonds. The number of cases fluctuates and the so-called “hotspots” shift but the problem remains an immediate one.

While the predominantly Somali-based piracy off East Africa has, at least temporarily, been almost eradicated thanks to the international military presence and private armed security forces, the focus has shifted to the Gulf of Guinea. Here, Nigerian attackers are considered a scourge of the shipping industry. To the chagrin of seafarers, many say they have changed their approach to focus more on kidnapping and the extortion of ransoms.

But is it really like that? Although security experts paint a differentiated picture, what is certain is that crew members have been kidnapped time and time again off West Africa. With the 2019 and 2020 incidents involving the MAR MALAITA and the TOMMI RITSCHER, German owned-ships have been amongst those affected. The latter vessel, a container freighter of the shipping company Gerd Ritscher, was attacked off the coast of Benin last May and eight seamen were dragged ashore. It is not altogether clear whether a ransom was paid or if the men were forcibly freed by security forces. The German Federal Police responsible for the case have not yet revealed any details due to ongoing investigations.

German Findings
In 2019, Germany’s Federal Police’s Piracy Prevention Centre collected information on 96 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea. Among them were 52 robberies – six of them with a “German connection” – and 21 kidnappings, one of them with a German connection. In 2020 (as of early June) there had already been 24 raids – two of them with a German connection – and twelve kidnappings. The number of cases is “almost at a consistently high level,” it says. The approach to prevention and investigation work by the German police is identical to that for cases of Somali piracy.

68 per cent More Hostages
Data from different observers fluctuate, counting methods differ, and the number of unreported cases is an additional complication. It is therefore difficult to get an exact picture. However, it is clear that the total number of piracy cases worldwide has been falling: with 193 incidents – a decrease of 14% – 2019 was the quietest” year since 1996, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). At the same time – counting and interpretational differences accepted – one has to acknowledge that the risk of being kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea has increased.

Munro Anderson, partner at the security service consultancy Dryad Global, emphasised this in an interview with HANSA, “The figures tell us that there is generally a slight decline in piracy off West Africa. The figures also tell us that there is an increase in serious incidents involving kidnappings and ransom extortions.” His team counted 105 kidnappings in 2016, 111 in 2017, 156 one year later and as many as 177 in 2019. At the end of that year, the cases of the NAVE CONSTELLATION and DUKE, in particular caused a sensation when, respectively, 19 and 20 crew members were abducted. This trend continued into 2020, when there were 50 kidnapping victims in seven attacks during the first few months of the year alone.

Anderson confirms this impression: “In West Africa, pirates have long been concentrated on stealing cargo, especially from tankers. Now there is a swing to ‘human cargo’.”

Not a Drastic Change
The attackers benefit from years of experience: in the Niger Delta and Nigeria, kidnappings have long been part of the repertoire of militants and criminal groups involved in drug or smuggling business. They fight against each other, against government agencies and against international oil companies, which they accuse of corruption and enrichment at the expense of the population. So far, these activities have only been “maritime” in so far as they have taken place in a region intersected by many rivers, with the kidnappers running hostage camps in the mangrove forests of the delta. Now, seafarers are being dragged there as well.

In fact, there are currently more incidents beyond the “traditional core area” of the pirates, the Nigerian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This is due to the lack of effective security structures. 2019 saw a sharp increase near the joint development zone of Nigeria and Sao Tome, 13 raids in the waters off Togo and Benin, and an 83 percent increase off Cameroon. However, experts do not see a drastic change. Dryad Global’s Anderson says, “It has always been a problem. Where you have little resistance, you will always have an exponential increase.” On the other hand, it is true that West African piracy has become stronger and cases on the high seas are increasing.

Dirk Siebels from the security service consultancy Risk Intelligence emphasises that the situation has never been static: “The oil theft is almost over. Other things, especially kidnappings, have increased. The change in the attack areas has always been a problem for shipping companies: Those who send their ships to the region have to be up to date. ”

At the same time, there has always been a great deal of overlap between piracy and other criminal machinations; the groups were and are often the same. “There aren’t necessarily more kidnapping attacks. What has changed, however, is that, on average, more hostages are taken per attack.” Four or five years ago it was the captain or the chief, because they get the most ransom money. In 2016 there were an average of four hostages, in 2018/19 there were eight.

US$50,000 to U$80,000 per Capita
The reason for this: it is worth it. However, that is not the only cause. “The business model is so well established that the hostages can now be kept safe, both from the police and the military as well as from rival groups,” says Siebels. The sums extorted are lower than in Somali piracy cases. There it was about whole ships and cargoes, whilst in West Africa it is “only” about seamen, as callous as that may sound. It makes negotiations easier. And it’s a business model that has been established on land over a long period of time, producing experienced negotiators. Between US$50,000 and US$80,000 per capita is a relatively realistic demand for foreign hostages, depending on nationality. You try to get it done well and quickly. The hostages are treated relatively well, even if a hostage camp always remains a hostage camp.

When asked “More piracy or not?” Siebels refers to the greater public attention the subject currently attracts. “One shouldn’t simply analyse everything as piracy. The connection to other things is important. If you take that into account, piracy hasn’t increased significantly over the past 5-10 years, but it hasn’t decreased significantly either. It’s just partly more visible. That will be the case over the next few months.”

There will always be a myriad of causes for piracy, often with hidden intentions. Both analysts see bureaucracy and corruption as one of the main evils in the region. Political action is a crucial factor. Politics is not inactive.

Politics vs. Pirates
“On the one hand, it has become much more difficult for pirates since the Buhari government came to power in Nigeria in 2015. There were reforms in the oil sector, now it is no longer so easy to sell stolen oil,” says Dirk Siebels from Risk Intelligence. On the other hand, not all measures have been shown to be effective. But at least there are political initiatives, such as the first real anti-piracy legislation in West Africa and the plan for special courts in the country.

Smuggling and cargo theft are still a major problem in Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. “But that’s the smaller part. Yes, the majority of offshore crime is the result of criminal activity – there will always be complex cases – but the majority of incidents today are quite simply the result of piracy”, said Anderson.

Last but not least, the case of TOMMI RITSCHER showed that Benin is increasingly developing into another hotspot. According to Dryad, it was the second incident within the Cotonou anchorage in 2020 and the fifth in twelve months. At the same time, it is an example of cooperation: within a few hours, the Nigerian Navy was informed and deployed – but the pirates and their hostages had already disappeared. According to Siebels, a central difficulty in the trend towards hostage-taking is that it actually requires even more from the security services, because the pirates are able to disembark much faster than is the case with tanker captures and cargo theft. There is less time to intervene and more personnel and equipment are needed to control the relevant waters effectively.

Battle-Hardened Pirates
Nigeria still does not allow private armed security guards on board in its waters. For Siebels, the question arises as to whether or not that makes sense. In Nigeria, in particular, attackers were often not deterred by this, not even by warning shots as often helped off Somalia: “Here the attackers are better equipped and more battle-tested.” On occasions, security personnel on board engaged in an exchange of fire with the pirates, and there were deaths among the guards.

Meanwhile, regional developments have led to some changes in the insurance market. (Photo – investigators at work collecting and preserving evidence at a pircay crime scene.) In September 2020, the Joint War Committee of the Lloyd’s Market Association and International Underwriting Association in London expanded its Gulf of Guinea listed area – first deemed a high risk area in August 2011 – further south and east due to the continuing and expanding range of attacks. Ships attempting to sail the Gulf of Guinea must notify their insurers and may need to take additional safety precautions and pay additional premiums in order to obtain coverage.

2,300 Illegal Refineries Destroyed
The World Economic Forum still sees weak governments and poor conditions as the main reason for piracy. “Criminals, insurgents and other groups see opportunities to raise money for their fighting on land by sucking oil from tankers and selling it on the black market,” says an analysis. At least this problem is somewhat contained. According to the Nigerian authorities, almost 2,300 illegal refineries were destroyed between 2015 and 2019.

At this time, as with almost all assessments, it is necessary to consider the Covid-19 crisis, which has resulted in many policy measures being suspended. The World Economic Forum sees a risk that, as a result of the pandemic, countries with fewer resources will find it difficult to monitor their territorial waters: “As hospitals fill up with patients, governments will turn their efforts away from piracy and towards shift more immediate worries ashore.”

Marine risk analyst Siebels, on the other hand, does not believe that there will be a noticeable reduction in cooperation at sea – but he does not expect an expansion either. Munro Anderson from Dryad says: “As a result of Covid-19, uncertainty should theoretically increase, there are delays in the port, more ships in the roadstead – so more targets for pirates. I would be surprised if the numbers don’t rise”. Currently, the waiting time for ships in the port of Lagos alone is around 50 days …

Sovereignty vs. International Intervention
International security operations in the Gulf of Guinea are unlikely. Recently, there have been repeated calls, including from German ship-owners, for more action, not least from countries in the region. However, the use of warships or an international military alliance, such as the one that was and is very successful in the fight against pirates before Somalia, is considered unrealistic for many reasons.

Cameroon and Benin have also become more active, requiring guards when calling at ports. At the regional level, initiatives such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct and the Lomé Charter of the African Union should help in ensuring exchange and cooperation. There is now a regional coordination centre in the Cameroonian city of Yaoundé and many countries encompassed by the region’s main two economic groupings – the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) – are working more closely together. “The cooperation between neighbours is now much better. But the basic problem remains, there are too few boats and trained security guards”, says Siebels.

The Buhari government also has the €180 million “Deep Blue” integrated maritime security project in train. Its start, delayed due to the Corona crisis, is anticipated in the first half of 2021. It is intended to expand the use of ships and helicopters to help the authorities to know more precisely what is happening across Nigeria’s EEZ and not just in the territorial waters. Siebels rates the initiative as “great progress”. Piracy, however, was not the driver of the plans. Deep Blue is actually designed to combat oil theft and smuggling, which is the bigger problem from the government’s point of view.

In contrast to Somalia, the West African countries are not so-called “failed states”. There are functioning state structures. Even if they are too often overwhelmed and the sometimes subject to rampant corruption that only serves to fuel piracy, these are sovereign states. Deployment of foreign naval units to the region would be perceived as interference in internal affairs and is therefore rejected. “In this structure it is far more difficult to find an agreement,” says Munro Anderson of Dryad, who only observes support measures such as training and the exchange of information between countries such as the United States, France and Portugal with the navies of Ghana or Nigeria.

In his opinion, an important aspect is a lack of will in the international community: Nigeria and the delta are of far less importance for world trade than the Strait of Hormuz or the Suez Canal. The geopolitical interest is correspondingly smaller. The nationality of the seafarers also plays a role in Anderson’s eyes: “Realistically, if we had seen 177 hostages taken from Europe or America, naval coalitions would very quickly be present in these waters.”

Dirk Siebels from Risk Intelligence also doesn’t believe that it will come to that. A lack of naval capacity is one reason. He also notes that, “Navies would not be particularly well suited to combatting this whole mix of piracy and other illegal activities such as smuggling.” But most importantly, regional countries do not want it.


CHALLENGE: Piracy continues to threaten seafarers in strategic waters and EEZs worldwide. Vigilance, preparation, early detection and rapid response remain the best means to counter pirate tactics since the earliest days of armed robbery on the high-seas. However, these are difficult to achieve because pirate vessels range in size from high speed skiffs to watercraft disguised as fishing boats attempting to get close to a target ship and attack.

Vidar Photo 1: Pirates intercepted and arrested as a result of Sentient Vision Systems. Credit: Sentient Vision SystemsSOLUTION:Visual Detection and Ranging – ViDAR – developed by Sentient Vision Systems is the world’s first Optical Radar system.   It consists of multiple fixed, high-resolution cameras with a combined Field of View of 180 degrees. Mounted in an external pod or internally aboard an aircraft or UAV, ViDAR can passively find an object in the water as small as a human head.

ViDAR makes counter-piracy tasks much easier for patrolling forces and the transport-logistic ships they might escort. ViDAR demonstrated its ability to automatically find fast boats at ranges of 9.1 to 17 nm and fishing boats at ranges from 17 to 25 nm in various sea trials around the world.

Sentient builds surveillance architectures with capabilities that deliver airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities.

VIDAR: Core Capabilities –

  • Target discovery at significant safe and discreet distances …from 10 to 30nm depending on vessel size
  • Real time identification, classification and categorisation of targets
  • >300x greater ocean coverage than conventional visual search techniques
  • Collates simultaneous inputs from ViDAR, AIS transponders and other sensors
  • High probability of detection at 96%
  • Proven effective in rough waters up to Sea State 6
  • Identifies targets with a small or non-existent radar cross-section

Benefits –

  • Low SWaP addition to any airframe
  • Quick and effective ISTAR and SAR tool
  • Allows an armed maritime force to respond appropriately and proportionately
  • Significantly reduces loss of life and property
  • Lower cost than re-installing an entirely new system of sensors, etc.
  • Easy integration with legacy manned / unmanned airframes and sensor packages
  • Proven effective in multiple continent deployments
  • Mission recording for analysis, court evidence, documentation and training
ViDAR Photo 2: Detection & tracking activity on a map. Credit: Sentient Vision Systems

 INSIGHT: “ViDAR was designed to enhance detection & tracking capabilities to deliver whatever effect the situation demands. The Royal Australian Navy is typical of modern maritime forces in exploring this elegant and economical response to common maritime security challenges”, Dr Paul Boxer, founder of Sentient.

FLEXIBILITY: Sentient Vision Systems has integrated ViDAR with multiple different airborne mission systems and platforms ranging from a UAV such as the Insitu Scan Eagle® to helicopters such as the AW139 and fixed-wing aircraft including the Beechcraft Kingair 350, Viking Twin Otter, Dash 8 and the Bombardier Challenger 604 jet.

CONCLUSION: ViDAR’s AI-enabled signal processing capability enables it to detect miniscule targets against an extremely cluttered background. Data fusion and machine learning over multiple manned and unmanned missions enables faster, less-fatiguing aerial searches in all sea conditions. Sentient provides a unique, cost-effective and quicker response to maritime threats and emergencies.