The recent hijacking of a ship off the coast of emerging oil darling Angola, and the apparent heist of $8 million in fuel, helps us trace how piracy on the high seas has shifted geographically and how it changes and adapts to new security efforts.
Civil war-torn and anarchic Somalia used to steal all the piracy headlines—not so anymore. Pirates were pushed off the Somali coast, and along with some other ingenious adaptations to their modus operandi, they moved with the geographical—and increasingly geological—times. Where the oilmen go, the pirates will follow.
A regional and Western security response has forced pirates to rethink their strategy, and they have repeatedly demonstrated that they are capable of moving with the times, so to speak. They’re no longer trading in people; they’re trading in oil, and their networks are highly complex.
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Nigeria’s efforts to thwart piracy have resulted in a shift of attacks further east into the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, for instance. Before that, increased security off the Somali coast shifted things to West African coastal venues. The Indian Ocean remains a pirates’ playground and their capabilities have metamorphosed along with improvements in security.
This brings us full circle to the incident in Angola, which has the industry—and Angolan officials who are keen to portray their coast as safe from piracy—nervous.
The metamorphosis has been fast and impressive. The first big response to the increased efforts to stymie piracy off the Somali coast was the introduction of “mother ships”—larger vessels that serve as a floating headquarters of sorts to give the pirates a greater geographical reach and mobility. The mother ship meant that the sneaky little skiffs go launch from further out in the Indian Ocean without needing to return to the shore to refuel or regroup during a hijacking operation. The Mother Ship would maintain a safe distance from the target vessel, and the skiffs returned when needed. The further navies push them from the coast, the more adept the pirates become at launching attacks from further into the Indian Ocean.
But pirate agendas have changed, too. Now they’re after oil and have no interest in the vessel or the crew, who are held hostage only long enough to siphon cargo from the ship. The ideal is no one gets killed, which keeps reprisals down.
The number of hijackings has actual decreased over the past several years, but the threat piracy poses is still the same, if not greater.
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Writing for Maritime-executive.com, James Bridger of Delex Systems, Inc. notes: “Heightened security in the Nigerian littoral appears to have had a Darwinian effect on maritime criminals, as more sophisticated and politically connected syndicates have thrived at the relative expense of opportunistic ‘smash and grab’ pirates.”
Even more interesting is where that oil goes, because this requires a massively organized transnational criminal network that necessarily extends to officialdom in some regions. The stolen cargo has to be stored somewhere before it is disbursed on the black market, or repackaged and camouflaged by legitimate petroleum products.
What of Angola? Well, even the latest hijacking isn’t likely to damper the optimism over this emerging oil giant, but the same oil wealth is attracting the pirates. The authorities in Angola were keen—for obvious reasons—to accuse the vessel’s crew of staging the whole thing, in a bit of wishful thinking, though the vessel’s owner is convinced of a hijacking. The investigation plods along, but genuine hijacking or not, this is a scenario Angola is going to have to get used to.
By. James Stafford of Oilprice.com