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Boskalis’ Vessel Hijack in E/Guinea …Most Likely an Act of Nigerian Pirates

Sunday’s violent pirate attack in which shots were fired and Boskalis’ heavy transportation vessel was hijacked was most likely an act committed by Nigerian pirates. Luckily there were no casualties as the crew locked itself in the citadel and waited for the rescue to arrive.

In a statement read out on Equatorial Guinea’s state radio on Tuesday, Vice President of Defence and Security, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, claimed that 10 pirates had been arrested. “Thanks to the swift intervention of our armed forces, (we) managed to save the crew on board and arrest ten pirates,” he said, adding that their presumed nationality was Nigerian.

Wanting to learn more about the event itself and the environment in the Gulf of Guinea vessel operators are facing, Oil and Gas People spoke to Jake Longworth, a Senior Intelligence Analyst at EOS Risk Group.

Longworth told us that the attacks in Equatorial Guinea’s waters were yet another significant development for West African piracy this year.

“Attacks in Equatorial Guinea’s waters are incredibly rare, despite proximity to the severe piracy risk areas south of Bonny Island, Nigeria.”

Longworth added that the last confirmed attack of note in Equatorial Guinea’s waters occurred over five years ago, with attacks only rarely taking place to the east of Nigeria’s maritime boundary (EEZ) with Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.

Asked if he believed the attack was conducted by Nigerian pirates, Longworth said: “EOS has dealt with a numerous kidnap and hijack cases in West Africa and we maintain close links with interested parties from the shipping, legal and financial industries, as well as relevant government authorities. All West African piracy cases we have been involved in or briefed on had roots in the Niger Delta. We have conducted investigations that reveal the occasional involvement of one or two pirates from other nationalities, such as the odd Beninese or Ghanaian national, especially during tanker hijacking for oil theft attempts, but the attack groups are predominantly Nigerian.”

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“Sometimes you see a geographically unusual attack, for example in the waters off the Bakassi Peninsula, Cameroon or off Pointe-Noire, Congo and people assume local pirates are involved. But these hostages always seem to end up in the Niger Delta, particularly in the creeks around Nigeria’s Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States. Nigerian pirate groups sometimes use ‘motherships’ and small ‘ghost tankers’ to sail around the West Africa region, similar to the tactics used by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. It makes them very unpredictable.”

“That said, if you’re looking at the criminal incidents at anchorage or port – this is always done by locals. But if it’s a hijack, kidnap or serious attack requiring expertise, this points to Nigerian PAG involvement.”

While the incidents in Equatorial Guinea may be rare, they do occur, as seen on Sunday with the Blue Marlin vessel.

According to data provided by EOS Risk Group, there have been three attacks in the space of two days in the broader area.

First, on Friday, May 3, the Liberia-flagged tanker Levanto, underway from Calabar to Lagos, was attacked by armed pirates in a speedboat at 2050 hrs local time, 35nm SSW of Agbami terminal, 97nm SW of Brass, Nigeria. The vessel’s master enacted AP procedures and evasive maneuvers. Pirates fired upon vessel but failed to board.

Then on Sunday morning, Nigeria-flagged tug Charis was boarded and hijacked by pirates 30nm SW of Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

It is believed that this vessel was used by the pirates to attack Boskalis’ semi-submersible heavy lift ship Blue Marlin which was, underway from Luba (EG) to Valetta (Malta).

According to EOS, the vessel was attacked by seven armed pirates at around 1 pm local time 36nm SW of Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Pirates boarded and the crew retreated to the citadel.

“Pirates remained onboard overnight, attempting to access the citadel and ransack valuables. Pirates used vessel’s PA system to threaten crew to emerge from the citadel and give the pirates all cash onboard. When the Master refused, the pirates used a small hole into the citadel to fire off several rounds (likely 7.62mm). No injuries reported,” EOS said.

An Equatorial Guinea Navy frigate (F073) and two helicopters responded to the scene of the attacks. Spanish Navy Patrol Boat Serviola (P71) was diverted from Nigerian waters and sped to the location at max speed.

“With the presence of naval forces, pirates disembarked and fled the location. On May AM, a boarding team from the Serviola boarded the Blue Marlin and all 20 crew were later reported to be safe. The tug Charis was also declared to have been freed from pirates,” EOS Risk Group information stated.

In further comment for Oil and Gas People, Longworth also noted that several other attacks in 2019 have redefined the risk profile in the region, specifically the attack on the tanker Cap Theodora 106nm south of Lagos, the attack on tanker Advantage Summer with its freeboard of 15.9m, the kidnapping from tanker Histria Ivory offshore Togo, the attack and successful kidnap from diving support vessel E.Francis under security escort off the Niger Delta, the kidnap of crew from the cargo vessel Contship Oak at Douala anchorage and two attacks on commercial vessels on the Bonny River.

Speaking about the geography of the threat, Longworth said that Nigerian pirates have operated at substantial ranges across West Africa since January 2018, “conducting attacks off Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Congo. Within the last decade, Nigerian pirates have also operated in the waters of Cote d’Ivoire, Sao Tome and Principe, and Angola. This paints a very ominous picture for shipping companies operating in the region, whose vessels face elevated security risks in around 338,000 square miles of water, an area twice the size of the Red Sea.”

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Nigerian pirates have kidnapped 46 seafarers from vessels operating in West Africa so far this year, compared to 93 seafarers abducted in 2018.

According to EOS Risk Group statistics, Nigerian pirates have kidnapped 46 seafarers from vessels operating in West Africa so far this year, compared to 93 seafarers abducted in 2018.

Longworth believes that the presence of a NATO naval asset in the Gulf of Guinea, specifically Spain’s OPV Serviola (P71), is a positive deterrent, having responded to two pirate attacks since it arrived in the region in April 2019.

However, he noted that the vessel is only deployed on a temporary mission spanning three months and that continued support from foreign navies was likely to be intermittent: “the Gulf of Guinea is not a strategic or economic priority for western navies, which are already overstretched on deployments in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and South China Sea. The shipping industry will have to continue to do what it can to mitigate the risks of operating in the region in the absence of effective state security.”

According to Longworth, “informed risk assessments, safe routing, vessel hardening and anti-piracy procedures – as defined in the Gulf of Guinea Guidelines and Global Counter Piracy Guidance – remain a ship owner or Master’s first line of defence. Indeed, the Blue Marlin’s crew have demonstrated how citadels can be effectively employed as part of a layered defence system.”

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Beyond this, Longworth outlined several armed security solutions available across the West Africa region, involving the sub-contracting of state naval personnel and deployment of registered security escort vessels, but claimed that using these services requires professional oversight. “Security risk mitigation has to be intelligence and compliance-led. If you don’t understand the threat and you don’t understand relevant regulatory and operational limitations, it’s very easy to get things wrong in West Africa.”