Why U.S. Flagged Vessels make alluring targets for pirates and why Nigeria is the new piracy hot spot.
By Tony Portelli
“The U.S. Government will make no concessions to individuals or groups holding official or private U.S. citizens hostage. It is U.S. Government policy to deny hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession”; Press Statement, Richard Boucher, U.S. Department of State, International Terrorism: American Hostages (Feb. 20, 2002).
Nigerian Pirates Target U.S. Vessels. On October 23, 2013, The U.S.-flagged oil supply vessel C-Retriever, owned by Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore, was attacked by Nigerian pirates in the Gulf of Guinea. On board were an American crew and a Nigerian Security Force. The pirates destroyed the communications and navigation gear, separated the crew by nationality and kidnapped the Captain and Chief Engineer, both Americans, who have since been released. A Nigerian spokesman indicated that these pirates were Nigerian criminals, not militants.
Although this incident seems to be the first involving American hostages in that region in at least two years and it was the first pirate attack on an American vessel in a few years, U.S. flagged vessels are still alluring targets for pirates, but why? Two reasons: first, the U.S. has money to supply ransoms; second, with heightened sensitivities to U.S. political assistance internationally, the U.S. is usually more conservative with its rules of engagement versus our NATO partners.
Vessels are primarily captured for the financial value of the target, typically for valuable cargo rather than for hostages. Thus, seized oil tankers are redirected to chartered tankers known as “mother ships” that receive the stolen oil. However, with ransoms being paid in the millions of dollars, kidnapping and taking crew members hostage is bringing in the cash too.
Here is how the hostage situation works for pirates: As soon as pirates take over a vessel, the crew alerts the vessel’s owner who contacts the vessels’ insurer who then contracts a private firm to take over the hostage negotiations. Pirates want money; plain and simple. Their motivations may be a little different. Some pirates hijack vessels in response to political disdain in impoverished countries where governments are taking in oil revenue that is not going back into the economy. For others it is just a way of life when little to no economic opportunities are available and the only source of income is to engage in criminal activity. Whatever drives pirates to attack vessels and take hostages at sea they all have one main concern, the ransom amount. And what country better to demand the highest ransom amount from but the U.S.
Back in 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed to companies to stop paying ransoms, “Clearly, if they didn’t pay the ransoms, we would be in a stronger position,” he said. But are we willing to risk the lives of U.S. citizens until pirates realize the U.S. won’t pay ransoms for the safe release of hostages? Will they just surrender and turn over the vessel and hostages? Or will they commandeer the vessel and imprison all hostages, or worse, kill them?
Publicly, the U.S. condemns paying ransom, which goes along with the strict government policy, but privately, the U.S. government facilitates negotiations of payments for their citizens because the U.S. knows the alternatives to ransoms are few and risky. Military intervention may seem like a logical scenario, but then we put the lives of the hostages at risk. Some pirates realize this and thus keep hostages onboard the hijacked vessel. This also assures negotiators that once the ship is turned over, the hostages will be too. Some pirates demand the freedom of imprisoned citizens from their country in exchange for hostages; but this is just another form of ransom seen as acquiescence or a reward, just not in a monetary value. Although the U.S. stance regarding ransoms is ‘nothing of value in return for hostages’, this doesn’t deter private companies, citizens or family members from gathering up the money to pay the kidnappers. Ransom negotiations are hoped to be settled quickly and privately to avoid publicity over the amounts paid.
The waters off the coast of Somalia were once the playground of choice for pirates. Now it seems piracy cases off the coast of Nigeria are on the rise. Alistair Galloway, owner of private security provider Endeavour Maritime, said the discovery of new oil reserves in West African countries including Cameroon and Liberia was driving up shipping traffic in the area. The International Maritime Bureau reported that pirate attacks off Nigeria’s coast had jumped by a third this year — with 29 attacks on vessels recorded in the first nine months of 2013, up from 21 in the same period last year. The International Maritime Bureau said in the first nine months of 2013 the Gulf of Guinea accounted for all crew kidnappings worldwide, 32 of them off Nigeria, and two off Togo.
Cargo vessels and private yachts now speed through the dangers waters around Somalia and the Horn of Africa with armed guards from Private Maritime Security Companies on board. But in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa, the massive influx of cargo vessels have to anchor to do business like sitting ducks especially since Nigeria does not allow vessels operating in its waters to have private armed security agents on board. Companies seeking armed protection against pirates must arrange to carry Nigerian naval personnel which can be a difficult and unpredictable feat.