Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tanker Missing as Pirate Worries Extend into the Shipping Lanes

Nigerian Hijackers Thought to have Extended Their Range
Shipping News Feature

NIGERIA – ANGOLA – Last month we warned how attacks off the West African coast were increasing as those of Somalia fell and now a warning has come in from Dryad Maritime, a specialist maritime intelligence company based in the UK, telling of its suspicions that a Liberian flagged tanker, MT Kerala, may have been hijacked after she disappeared of the Angolan coast. Owned by Dynacom Tankers based in Greece and which operates a fleet totalling around 5 million deadweight tonnes, the vessel vanished on 18 January after a last sighting seven nautical miles NNW of Luanda.

Dryad point out that the ship’s disappearance may represent a significant extension of maritime crime emanating from the Gulf of Guinea region. Many of these crimes are committed by gangs of disenfranchised locals, often connected with MEND. If confirmed as a hijack, this would be the furthest south that Nigerian-based criminals had struck for the purposes of refined product cargo theft, a crime hitherto perpetrated across the Gulf of Guinea region, from Abidjan (Ivory Coast) in the west to Port Gentil (Gabon) in the south.

This extension of criminality out from the Niger Delta and further into the shipping lanes is reminiscent of the Somali theatre, where, over time, raids offshore evolved into long range forays by pirates across the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden. If the MT Kerala has been hijacked, an unfortunate coincidence will be in play, with Dynacom Tankers being the owners of the last vessel to be released by Somali pirates in 2013 (MT Smyrni) and now the owners of the first hijacked vessel in West Africa in 2014.

The loss of communication with the tanker follows a number of warnings issued by Dryad Maritime Intelligence to its clients of a suspect vessel operating off the Angolan coast. The vessel, identified as a 200 tonne tug, was originally thought to be operating in the waters to the east of Sao Tome before heading south toward the coast of Angola. The suspect vessel was also sighted in a restricted area offshore Angola on 17th January, reportedly close to the anchored position of MT Kerala. Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime’s Director of Intelligence, observes:

“This is a worrying development in West African maritime crime. We have been watching Nigerian based pirates launch an increasing number of attacks on vessels in areas not normally associated with piracy of late. If substantiated, this latest incident demonstrates a significant extension of the reach of criminal groups and represents a threat to shipping in areas that were thought to be safe.

“The criminal gangs that conduct this particular brand of intelligence-led maritime crime are well-prepared, well-armed and have specialist maritime knowledge and expertise. Operations are primarily targeted at ships in offshore anchorages, sometimes during ship-to-ship cargo transfer ops (STS) with attacks mainly conducted under cover of darkness. The criminals usually disable communications and switch off AIS to avoid being detected, meaning that the first indication that owners have of the hijack is normally when they lose contact with the ship.”

Already in January 2014 Dryad Maritime Intelligence have reported the boarding of a tanker, MT Super League, 55 NM off the coast of Equatorial Guinea’s border with Gabon. This was then followed by the hijacking and kidnapping of three crew members from cargo vessel MV San Miguel just 20 NM off the coast of Bata, Equatorial Guinea. Attacks on product tankers are usually launched for the purpose of refined product cargo theft or ‘Extended Duration Robbery’ (EDR) due to the relatively short period of vessel detention. This type of maritime crime has been perpetrated by Nigerian criminal gangs across the Gulf of Guinea for a number of years as we have often reported.

Originally conducted off Nigeria, cargo theft first migrated westward to Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast and then south to Gabon as security and awareness improved in each of these areas. Once in control of a victim ship, the criminal gang force the vessel’s master to navigate to a location, normally offshore Niger Delta, where a portion of its cargo will be siphoned off to a smaller vessel, before the vessel and its crew are released.

Photo: Courtesy of Dryad Maritime Intelligence – suspect tug off Angola.