Pirates Shift Focus From Somalia To West Africa

Aug 5, 2013
Originally published on August 5, 2013 4:32 pm

West African leaders have called for the deployment of an international naval force to curb the growing threat of piracy off the Gulf of Guinea.

Piracy in the region needed to be tackled with “firmness,” Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara said at a meeting of regional leaders.

There are now more pirate attacks off West Africa than off Somalia, maritime groups said last week. Patrols by foreign warships are credited with reducing attacks by Somali pirates.


  • Mike Thomson, BBC foreign affairs correspondent. He tweet @ThomsonRadio.
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Piracy is still a big problem around the world with a price tag of about $6 billion a year in monies lost and stolen and efforts to fight piracy. But the pirates seem to be shifting their focus away from the coast of Somalia in the east. There are now more pirate attacks off the coast of West Africa, mainly in the Gulf of Guinea, where there have been more than two dozen pirate attacks on ships this year.

Leaders in West Africa are calling for an international naval force to curb the growing threat there because they say that's the strategy that worked off the coast of Somalia, reducing the number of pirate attacks there. The BBC's Mike Thomson has been looking at whether lessons might be learned from the successful fight against the Somali pirates.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The high speed boats are approaching us from the stern, over.

MIKE THOMSON: A Danish cargo ship is overrun by pirates off the Somali coast. What's happening here in the film "A Hijacking" is fictional. But until recently it was only too often for real.

CHIRAG BAHRI: We saw some skiffs approaching us, and they were having all AK-47s and automated weapons and all. And they hijacked the vessel and asked us to take the vessel towards Somalia.

THOMSON: So you really were in fear of your life?

BAHRI: Oh, yes. We - everybody was panicked and shocked, totally shocked.

THOMSON: What followed for second engineer Chirag Bahri and his crewmates in May 2010 was eight months of captivity involving beatings and almost unendurable cruelty.

BAHRI: After five or six months, when the tortures were at the peak position(ph), we lost the hope that we'll survive all of it. It was like living in hell.

THOMSON: All were finally released in January 2011 after $5 million in cash was dropped onto the captured ship by parachute. Since then, international navies have stepped up patrols off Somalia and caught hundreds of pirates. Many others have now thrown in the towel. 26-year-old Ahmed Farah from the former piracy stronghold of Eyl told me why he gave it up.


AHMED FARAH: (Through translator) I couldn't succeed. It was really a risk that I'll never forget. The danger to my life was really greater than the money I used to receive. So I realized that it's time to leave.

THOMSON: And how many people in your area were pirates like you?

FARAH: (Through translator) When it was the height of the piracy and the money was everywhere, I estimate about 40 percent of the young men were involved in the piracy.


PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN: The unacceptable rising incidents of crude oil theft must be tackled frontally.

THOMSON: Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan makes clear his country's determination to stamp out piracy. Late last month, his nation and 21 other Western and Central African states signed a new agreement aimed at beefing up the region's maritime security. But with more attacks now happening along the Guinea coast than anywhere else in the world, these nations have their work cut out.

To make matters worse, the violence involved here is often even worse than that of Somalia. Barnabas Epu of the Lagos Seafarers Welfare Center says amongst other horrors, some crew members have had their fingers hacked off.

BARNABAS EPU: Some of them (unintelligible) fingers were chopped off by these pirates. They use cigarettes. You know, they place cigarettes on your back. Some with marks of (unintelligible) some gunshots.

THOMSON: Unlike Somalia, countries on the Guinea coast have fully functioning governments, police and naval forces. But the fact that they refused to allow foreign ships to carry armed guards within their territorial waters despite the fact they've got limited security forces leaves many vessels vulnerable. Captain Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors attacks across the globe, says this attitude and the relatively small number of international forces in these waters compared to those of Somalia may well have to change.

CAPTAIN POTTENGAL MUKUNDAN: I think if the attacks continue to get worse, then they will have to do something because the Gulf of Guinea, amongst other things, is a very important source of energy. And the vessels being attacked are vessels carrying oil with all the consequences which can flow from a bad incident involving a piratical attack on one of these ships.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) check and make sure the lights are off, blinds down.

THOMSON: Seafarers undergo a detailed anti-piracy training program by members of SAMI, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry. Many ships lack armed guards and had to rely instead on numerous locks, chains and barbed wire to protect themselves. Roy Paul of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program.

ROY PAUL: When you're going into what we call a high-risk area, you have to start locking down the ship. You have barbed wire everywhere. You rig fire hoses to fight back. You lock every door, every window. And going to sea has always been described as being in prison with the chance of drowning. But, of course, now it's even more like a prison. That creates a great deal of fear.

YOUNG: That report from the BBC's Mike Thompson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.