The vessel, owned by Dynacom Tankers, has been reported as missing off the coast of Angola, having last been sighted seven nautical miles NNW of Luanda. The tanker’s disappearance may represent a significant extension of maritime crime emanating from the Gulf of Guinea region, most probably from Nigerian criminal gangs.
If confirmed as a hijack, this would be the furthest south that Nigerian-based criminals had struck for the purposes of refined product cargo theft – a crime hitherto perpetrated across the Gulf of Guinea region, from Abidjan (Ivory Coast) in the west to Port Gentil (Gabon) in the south.
If the Kerala has been hijacked, an unfortunate coincidence will be at play, with Dynacom Tankers being the owners of the last vessel to be released by Somali pirates in 2013 (Smyrni) and the owners of the first hijacked vessel in West Africa in 2014.
The loss of communication with the tanker follows a number of warnings issued by Dryad Maritime Intelligence to its clients of a suspect vessel operating off the Angolan coast. The vessel, identified as a 200-ton tug, was originally thought to be operating in the waters to the east of Sao Tome before heading south toward the coast of Angola. The suspect vessel was also sighted in a restricted area offshore Angola on 17th January, reportedly close to the anchored position of Kerala.
Ian Millen, Dryad Maritime’s Director of Intelligence, said: “This is a worrying development in West African maritime crime. We have been watching Nigerian based pirates launch an increasing number of attacks on vessels in areas not normally associated with piracy of late. If substantiated, this latest incident demonstrates a significant extension of the reach of criminal groups and represents a threat to shipping in areas that were thought to be safe”.
Already in January 2014 Dryad Maritime Intelligence have reported the boarding of a tanker, Super League, 55 NM off the coast of Equatorial Guinea’s border with Gabon. This was then followed by the hijacking and kidnapping of three crew members from cargo vessel San Miguel just 20 NM off the coast of Bata, Equatorial Guinea.
Attacks on product tankers are usually launched for the purpose of refined product cargo theft or Extended Duration Robbery (EDR) due to the relatively short period of vessel detention. This type of maritime crime has been perpetrated by Nigerian criminal gangs across the Gulf of Guinea for a number of years. Originally conducted off Nigeria, cargo theft first migrated westward to Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast and then south to Gabon as security and awareness improved in each of these areas. Once in control of a victim ship, the criminal gang force the vessel’s master to navigate to a location, normally offshore Niger Delta, where a portion of its cargo will be siphoned off to a smaller vessel, before the vessel and its crew are released.
“The criminal gangs that conduct this particular brand of intelligence-led maritime crime are well-prepared, well-armed and have specialist maritime knowledge and expertise. Operations are primarily targeted at ships in offshore anchorages, sometimes during ship-to-ship cargo transfer ops (STS) with attacks mainly conducted under cover of darkness. The criminals usually disable communications and switch off AIS to avoid being detected, meaning that the first indication that owners have of the hijack is normally when they lose contact with the ship”, added Mr Millen.
Dryad Maritime monitors vessels in the Gulf of Guinea and other areas of the globe, protecting them against cargo theft and other maritime crime. Although intelligence on the suspect tug in this incident was fleeting, there was enough information for Dryad Maritime to warn its clients to be particularly vigilant and adopt security measures routinely used when close to the shores of Gulf of Guinea states, as well as to direct vessels away from the threat area. Authorities offshore Luanda were also aware, issuing warnings on the suspect tug before contact was lost with MT Kerala.
“The best advice we can give ships’ Masters is to encourage the practice of good information security, thereby denying intelligence to criminal gangs by keeping ships’ movements and intentions known only to trusted agents. Whilst most seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea are very conscious of the threat, ships off Angola would not expect to be attacked. If Kerala has sadly fallen prey to pirates, then we might be seeing the criminals taking advantage of this fact.”