Interview: Kidnappings for Ransom Easy and Less Risky

In 2016, piracy has yet again emerged as one of the key problems seafarers face during their voyages at sea. A particular concern is the ever growing number of kidnappings for ransom against merchant vessels, which has significantly increased in areas off the Niger Delta, with at least 16 of the kidnapping victims so far in this year. However, the situation in other regions that seem to be more quiet is no reason for complacency, according to Dryad Maritime’s Head of Operations, Michael Edey.

In the following text, Mr Edey speaks of ongoing piracy trends, reasons behind them and gives an outlook on developments for the remainder of the year.

Kidnap is a relatively easy crime with big financial returns

WMN: Looking back at 2015, the piracy crackdown in Southeast Asia seems to have borne fruit with considerably cut number of recorded hijackings and maritime crime in the second half of the year and the Q1 of 2016. Can this trend be maintained or are pirates moving to another hotspot?

Edey: At the moment, the trend is continuing, but we cannot be complacent. The regional security forces must continue to work together patrolling the hot spots. The chances are that in time organised crime groups will again attempt to operate in the maritime sphere and the only deterrent will be the regional security and police forces’ willingness to catch and prosecute not only the ‘foot soldiers’ but also the organisers and financiers behind the crime. However, Masters and crew must also take responsibility to maintain a high level of security awareness, as the majority of attacks in Southeast Asia can be prevented by being alert, maintaining a good lookout and raising the alarm when something suspicious is spotted.

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WMN: The first quarter of 2016 has seen a number of kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea and more recently off Philippines. What would you say is the reason behind this trend and what can be done to combat it?

Edey: Kidnap is a relatively easy crime with big financial returns. Unlike the hijack of ships for ransom or for their cargoes of valuable fuel, the groups involved do not need to worry about how to offload and sell on the cargo, as in the Gulf of Guinea, or maintain control of the ship in a safe area while the ransom negotiations took place, as with Somali pirate hijacks. In short, kidnap is significantly less risky. Interestingly, kidnaps in both areas are supposedly related to ‘militant’ organisations; however, these enterprises are purely money making criminal enterprises with little to indicate that the kidnaps are in direct pursuit of their political aims, although indirectly the money may well be used to keep these criminal organisations operating. Combatting this crime requires a significant presence at sea from naval forces and effective action against the criminal gangs ashore that results in judicial outcomes; a recipe that has worked well in reducing hijacks in the Indian Ocean and, more recently, Southeast Asia, but has yet to find success in the Gulf of Guinea.

WMN: What should be the role of the international community, especially that of naval forces, in dealing with this issue? 

Edey: In both the Gulf of Guinea and the Sulu Sea, there is little that the ‘international’ forces can do to help directly. Many of these incidents take place in or close to territorial waters and the kidnapped crew end up ashore where international forces cannot operate. So, it is the job of the local and regional forces to combat the pirates in these areas. International forces can help with training and co-ordination, supporting the local forces to develop and counter these criminals, but care must be taken not to offend the local forces coming in with a ‘we know best’ attitude. The local forces in both areas have been fighting these criminals for some time, sometimes successfully; they know what needs to be achieved but do not always have the capability to do it.

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WMN: What would be your advice to ship owners and crews passing through the pirate-infested waters, especially in the Gulf of Guinea?

Edey: It has become clear that some ship owners, operators and masters, whilst probably being aware of the threat, are not always taking suitable precautions to reduce the risk; we feel that many do not really understand the situation, the risk areas and how to avoid them. This is where professional risk advice comes into play and I would recommend anybody operating in the area to consider getting some. Obviously, I would like them to come to Dryad, as this is what we do with our experienced, maritime analysts, but there are other reputable companies out there. There is nothing more serious than the wellbeing and safety of seafarers, so taking short cuts by not understanding the operating environment, or taking advice from those who do, is potentially reckless.

WMN: What is the best course of action when faced with a pirate attack on board a ship?

Edey: We have seen a number of attacks prevented from achieving success by the sensible and swift action of the crew and Master. At the lower level, for example ReCAAP’s Category 3 or 4 crimes, just appearing prepared and raising the alarm as soon as intruders are identified deters the criminals from boarding or makes them flee, if they are already onboard. The more serious events, such as the hijacks and kidnaps, ReCAAP’s Category 1 incidents, can also be deterred by maneuvering the ship. But, when the pirates attack it is sometimes too late. Crews must be prepared, trained and drilled so they know what to do in these situations. Ships in the High Risk Areas need to be prepared, as outlined in BMP4 and the Interim Guidance on piracy in West Africa. Some argue that embarked armed guards are the ultimate protection, and they have been very effective in contributing the containment of Somali piracy, but in West Africa guards have sometimes proved to be ineffective.

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WMN: In cases of kidnaps, what have been your findings so far regarding crew treatment?

Edey: On the whole, the majority of those kidnapped in West Africa are fairly treated and quickly released after the payment of the ransoms. However, there have been reports of kidnapped crew being badly treated including beatings, torture and fed limited rations. The fate of those taken in Southeast Asia is more debatable. The recent execution of John Ridsdel highlights that terrorist-related criminals are willing to be a bit more aggressive in making their point and this will obviously concern the families of the captured crew. However, the crews released so far have not reported any major issues.

WMN: Are security forces on board ships the answer to the rising issue of piracy? Can we expect more security guards to be hired on board ships?

Edey: Although the exact number of security teams operating in the Indian Ocean is difficult to calculate, their use is dropping. There are complex local, regional and international laws that prevent the guards operating in both Southeast Asia and West Africa. In West Africa, it is possible to get Navy and Police guards embark but this is relatively complex, possibly illegal and, as I said before, does not guarantee security. There are companies operating in West Africa who might take issue with my views on this, but Dryad does not currently recommend armed solutions in this region, judging the overall risk to be too high and favouring information and training based risk mitigation.

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WMN: What are the projections for the rest of the year in terms of piracy trends? Any indications of a potential crackdown on piracy groups active in the Gulf of Guinea?

Edey: Southeast Asia will probably not remain as quiet as we have seen so far this year, but we are unlikely to see a return to the levels of reported crime witnessed last year.

Incidents will continue in West Africa but if Nigerian forces are proactive, they may be able to keep a lid on it, but we have already had more offshore attacks than we had all last year. The recent discussion in the UN highlighted the worldwide concern over the piracy off Nigeria and we may well see additional international resources sent to the area to help deter and prevent further attacks. The Nigerian Navy is running Operation Tsare Teku with ships at sea patrolling the main area of concern off Bayelsa. There was a bit of a drop of recent incidents this week, but a colleague thinks that this is possibly just a coincidence.

In the Indian Ocean, I think we may well see some attacks on regional dhows and fishing vessels, as we did last year under the guise of Somali ‘fishery protection’. However, I do not think we will see a return to the industrial scale of Somali piracy seen earlier in the decade. We will also continue to have reports of ‘soft approaches’, mainly by ships with armed guards, in the Gulf of Aden without any real proof that Somali pirates were involved. Of greater concern, is the possible fallout from the ongoing fighting in Yemen. We have already seen an incident off Yemen when a ship was fired on by possible terrorists and we may see similar events. However, an attack like the one on the MT Limburg in 2002 is difficult to predict but I think it is less likely at this stage.

World Maritime News Staff; Image Courtesy: Dryad Maritime

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