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Gulf of Guinea replaces Somalia as most dangerous place to sail

by Tom Thompson**, The Maritime Executive/Sail-World on 4 Jun 2013
Piracy is being gradually controlled in Somali waters .. .
Piracy May Be Getting Worse, Not Better, according to The Maritime Executive. The Gulf of Guinea is fast replacing Somalia as the world's most dangerous place to sail. While the frequency of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa has fallen to its lowest level since 2009, this is no time to celebrate, says analyst Tom Thompson, with two vessels and 60 crewmembers still held:

More alarming is the increase in the capabilities of pirate groups in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, now challenging Somalia as the world’s most dangerous place to sail. Nigeria accounted for 27 attacks last year, and Togo reported more attacks in 2012 than in the previous two years combined.

It’s the dynamics of these attacks that is especially worrisome.

Strategically, the West Africa region of the Gulf of Guinea is the source of 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, which some analysts believe will increase to 25 percent over the next five years.

The region has the fastest rate of discovery of new reserves in the world, and those reserves have become a magnet drawing oil majors from the U.S., Europe and Asia. Where the large tankers go, without the protection of the combined naval forces that protect the waters around Somalia, so go the pirates.

Tankers in particular are the prized prey of pirates, who, frankly, are better described as a powerful transnational mafia. Sophisticated pirate networks often have vast knowledge of the operations of the oil industry and access to vital information, including the names of ships, intended voyage course, value of the cargo, whether or not armed guards are aboard, and the extent of the insurance cover. It's no place for the leisure sailor to be.

Many attacks are unreported. And any possible hostage value is far exceeded by the value of the oil to be siphoned off prior to black market 'recycling' back into the global supply system. Goods such as fish, cocoa, and minerals are also targets.

Staying out of the shipping zones and close to the coast is not recommended either. Piracy attacks in West Africa do not always occur on the high seas. Vessels are predominantly attacked in territorial waters. This prevents the easy use of either private or international military forces, a situation not made easier by a string of small countries with limited maritime enforcement capability. Then, too, there have been cases where security officials and politicians in the region are complicit in the piracy and theft of oil.

Pirate attacks on ships in the Gulf of Guinea are threatening one of the world’s fast-growing strategic hubs. They are likely to intensify unless the region’s weak naval and coast guard defenses are beefed up soon.

**Tom Thompson is an analyst at the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) and has traveled extensively in West Africa. His views are not necessarily those of MARAD or of any U. S. government agency.
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