On Thursday, October 24, unknown pirates seized an American-flagged oil industry vessel off the coast of Nigeria, kidnapping the captain and chief engineer in the process. The ship, identified as the C-Retriever, was boarded by pirates off the coast of the Nigerian town of Brass, near the oil-rich Niger Delta. At the time, the U.S. State Department said, “We believe this was an act of piracy.” The kidnapped victims were released on November 12, the State Department announced in a press briefing. Few other details about their release were given.
The recent abduction underscores the increase of piracy on the west coast of Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, and represents a shift in the epicenter of international pirate activity from Somalia to Nigeria. In the first three quarters of 2013, the International Chamber of Commerce recorded over 40 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, with the majority occurring off Nigeria’s coast. Piracy off the west coast of Africa thrives on a black market of seized goods. Oil tankers and other ships are vulnerable targets, with Gulf of Guinea pirates usually targeting a vessel’s oil supply and sometimes ransoming her crew.
After the recent abduction, White House spokesperson Jay Carney remarked, “More broadly, we are concerned by the disturbing increase in the incidence of maritime crime, including incidents of piracy off the coast of West Africa, specifically in the Gulf of Guinea.” The United States is responding to this type of piracy through training programs and joint exercises with local African forces, while recent reports indicate the possibility of an increasing presence of U.S. military forces off the coast of West Africa.
For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has provided training to regional governments militaries in order to improve their maritime capacity. AFRICOM’s strategy includes “capacity-building exercises, combined operations, and tailored maritime security strategies.” According to General David M. Rodriguez, commander of AFRICOM, the United States has partnered with more than 30 African and European nations to enhance shared maritime capacity in the joint military exercise Africa Partnership Station, while the African Maritime Law Enforcement Program seeks to build maritime law enforcement capacity in partner nations.
West African governments are also stepping up their collective security response to piracy in the Gulf. In late October, Ghana announced plans to create a court that prosecutes maritime crime, and is in the process of deploying “… special boat units to deal with maritime security challenges like piracy.” At a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in October, the region’s leaders announced that the economic bloc would establish a maritime safety coordination center in Cameroon to combat “piracy, terrorism, extremism, and banditry at sea.”
Lieutenant General Richard Tryon, commander of the U.S. Marine Corps, recently announced tentative plans to create an anti-piracy task force composed of U.S. Marines based on a Navy ship in the Gulf of Guinea. The floating vessel would carry about 550 Marines and six MV-22B Ospreys. The U.S. “does not currently have an enduring counter-piracy presence for the Gulf of Guinea” and the potential move reflects the country’s efforts to “realign regionally,” according to Foreign Policy, which links the U.S. Marine Corps expansion plans to imminent drawdowns in Afghanistan:
The plan comes as the Marine Corps withdraws thousands of personnel from Afghanistan and realign forces for new missions across the globe, including in Africa. They will do so at a time when there are fewer Navy ships available than there has been in decades, forcing Marines to use the ships available in unconventional ways. In other words: this isn’t the deployment of a single group of Marines; this could be a model for how the entire Corps operates for years to come.
This post was written by Transparency and Accountability Intern Kyle Dallman