Gulf of Guinea Crew Kidnappings Surge in First Half of 2020

Violent attacks against ships and their crews have risen in 2020, with 77 seafarers taken hostage or kidnapped for ransom since January, reveals the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in its latest piracy report. 

The Gulf of Guinea off West Africa is increasingly dangerous for commercial shipping, accounting for just over 90% of maritime kidnappings worldwide. Meanwhile ship hijackings are at their lowest since 1993. In total, IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) recorded 98 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the first half of 2020, up from 78 in Q2 2019. 

The increasing threat of piracy adds to hardships already faced by hundreds of thousands of seafarers working beyond their contractual periods due to COVID-19 restrictions on crew rotations and international travel.

“Violence against crews is a growing risk in a workforce already under immense pressure,” says IMB Director Michael Howlett. “In the Gulf of Guinea attackers armed with knives and guns now target crews on every type of vessel. Everyone’s vulnerable.”

So far this year, 49 crew have been kidnapped for ransom in the Gulf of Guinea and held captive on land for up to six weeks. Rates are accelerating, with 32 crew kidnapped in the past three months alone. And they are happening further out to sea: two-thirds of the vessels were attacked on the high seas from around 20 to 130 nautical miles off the Gulf of Guinea coastline. 

IMB PRC urges vessels to report any attacks promptly. It can then liaise with coastal agencies, international navies and vessel operators, encouraging a quick response to deter piracy and armed robbery and improve the security of seafarers. The PRC also broadcasts to shipping via GMDSS Safety Net Services and email alerts to Company Security Officers.

“We need to change the risk-to-reward ratio for pirates operating within the Gulf of Guinea. Without an appropriate and proportionate deterrent, pirates and robbers will get more ruthless and more ambitious, increasing the risk to seafarers,” says Howlett.

In one recent case commended by IMB, the Nigerian Navy responded promptly to a distress call from a fishing vessel boarded and hijacked by armed assailants in Ivory Coast waters. As a result the crew were saved and the ship was prevented from being used as a possible mother vessel to carry out further attacks. 

In another incident, a product tanker was attacked while underway around 127 nautical miles off Bayelsa, Nigeria. Eight armed pirates kidnapped ten crew as well as stealing cash, personal valuables, and ship’s property. IMB PRC contacted regional and international authorities, and a Nigerian Navy Security Vessel was dispatched. A nearby sister vessel helped the four remaining crewmembers to sail the tanker to a safe port. The kidnapped crew were released three weeks later.

In June, Nigeria announced it will begin prosecuting the first suspected pirates under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act. The law made Nigeria the first in West and Central Africa to have a standalone antipiracy legislation. 

The country is mounting a campaign to crack down on piracy and armed robbery in the country’s waters, via the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).  This effort is starting to bear fruit, with the Nigerian Navy and law enforcement arresting a total of 27 suspected pirates in May and June.

NIMASA has also improved its collaboration with the Nigerian Navy and other stakeholders in an effort to change the narrative of piracy and sea robbery in its maritime domain and the Gulf of Guinea. The new collaborative arrangement involves information sharing between NIMASA’s Command, Control, Communication, Computers, and Intelligence Centre of the Deep Blue Project, which commenced 24-hour operations last year, and the Nigerian Navy’s Falcon Eye to help track and combat criminal elements in the country’s maritime domain. 

Elsewhere, the Singapore Straits saw 11 incidents in the first half of 2020, raising the risk of collisions in this busy shipping channel, especially at night. Although most are opportunistic, low-level attacks that are aborted once the alarm is sounded, two reports in May 2020 indicated crew were threatened with knives, taken hostage and injured. 

There were ten attacks in Indonesian anchorages and waterways in Q2 2020, up from five in Q1 2020. 

In May, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) warned that a group of approximately five Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members armed with assorted firearms was planning to conduct kidnapping activities in undisclosed areas in Sabah, Malaysia. The ReCAAP warning said ASG is targeting wealthy businessmen or crew of fishing boats and other slow moving ships plying within the waters off Sabah, Malaysia. 

IMB is recording more incidents in Latin America, some in areas not previously known to have a piracy problem, but says many further attacks go unreported, making the problem more difficult to tackle.

The four attacks that were reported in Mexico all targeted offshore vessels, and all happened within a span of 11 days in April. One anchored accommodation barge was boarded by six people wearing face masks and armed with automatic weapons and pistols. They attempted to enter, and opened fire, injuring a crewmember and damaging three windows. The Master raised the alarm, sent a distress message, informed the Company Security Officer, and the crew mustered in the citadel. The incident was reported to the Marine Control via VHF Ch16 and a naval boat was dispatched, but the attackers escaped with the barge’s high value project equipment.

Vessels off Ecuador have recorded incidents each year since 2017, with at least three container ships attacked while underway in Q2 2020. In one case, two crew were taken hostage for the duration of the robbery and in another the perpetrators fired on the ship when they were unable to gain access. Incidents also continue to be reported off Callao anchorage, Peru.

Once a piracy stronghold, no incidents were reported off Somalia in the first half of 2020. However, IMB urges caution in the area and says Somali pirates still maintain the capability for carrying out attacks.  

Read more at the International Chamber of Commerce

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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