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Although Control Risks recorded a 21% decrease in attacks and boardings of ships globally in 2016, cases of high-severity maritime terrorism and kidnaps increased and several emerging trends are likely to pose threats to maritime operators in 2017.

Decrease in hijacks

Once a significant concern, Control Risks recorded an 83% decrease in hijacks globally in 2016 compared with 2015. This was driven by a steep drop in hijacks-for-cargo and -bunker theft in South-east Asia following improvements in regional law enforcement. During hijacks-for-cargo and -bunker theft, assailants take control of product and chemical tankers or barges carrying refined fuel cargo to siphon it off and sell it on.

South-east Asia saw a year-on-year decline in hijacks-for-cargo from 2011 to 2013, when only two cases were reported. However, between April 2014 and August 2015, more than 25 cases were recorded. Highly organised criminal syndicates drove the dramatic surge in hijacks. These groups were almost completely purged in mid-2015 after regional authorities initiated a coordinated campaign targeting criminal syndicates engaged in hijacking to steal refined fuel products, which led to several arrests. As a result, cargo hijacks in 2016 returned to pre-2014 levels, with only three cases recorded, primarily involving theft of palm oil cargo from locally operated barges.

In Nigeria, there has been a year-on-year drop in such hijacks from 2011 to 2016. The business model has proved cumbersome, requiring coordination between the pirates, a support vessel that the fuel can be siphoned over to, and a prospective buyer. The process can take between 12 and 48 hours to successfully complete. In comparison, executing a kidnap can take as little as 20 minutes. Siphoning of fuel also requires knowledge of ship types and assurance that the vessel is loaded. Not all groups have this knowledge, and non-tanker types such as bulk carriers have been erroneously targeted.

In the Horn of Africa, hijacking-for-ransom was the primary business model for Somali pirate groups in northern and central-eastern Somalia. Somali pirates have displayed very limited intent to target larger commercial ships in the past few years, with only one confirmed attack recorded in 2016. However, the hijack of a bunkering tanker off the autonomous state of Puntland (Somalia) on 13 March 2017 – the first successful hijack of a commercial vessel since May 2012 – demonstrates that Somalia-based groups retain the capability to carry out such attacks.

The downward trend in the Gulf of Guinea and South-east Asia will continue in 2017, as Nigerian and Indonesian naval forces continue their targeting of organised fuel syndicates. However, refined fuel products will continue to be a sought-after commodity on the black market and isolated cases will occur. Meanwhile, Somali pirate activity will remain limited in 2017, provided that commercial vessels continue to implement vessel-hardening measures and sail at an appropriate distance from the Somali coast.

Increase in kidnaps

In stark contrast to the decline in hijacks, maritime kidnaps increased by 44% globally in 2016, driven by an uptick in the abduction of crew from commercial vessels in the Gulf of Guinea compared with 2015, and an unprecedented number of offshore abductions in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Kidnaps of primarily Bangladeshi fishermen in the Bay of Bengal also continued, though at a lower level than in 2015. However, Bangladeshi kidnapping groups have not targeted crew on commercial ships.

In the Gulf of Guinea, 2016 saw the highest levels of maritime crime recorded since 2008. The vast majority of cases were recorded off Nigeria, specifically off the Niger delta states. A spike in kidnaps was recorded off the Niger delta between January and June 2016, with an average of almost three offshore kidnaps per month. This was largely driven by an announced cut in funding to the Niger delta amnesty programme for former militants, from NGN 65bn (around USD 206m) to NGN 20bn (around USD 64m). However, it was exacerbated by the activities of criminal groups in Bayelsa state (Nigeria) after the Bayelsa state gubernatorial election in January 2016 as weapons brought into the area during the election cycle were later used in offshore attacks. The frequency of attacks dropped significantly between July and December 2016, following increased naval patrols along internal waterways in Bayelsa state and back-payments of delayed amnesty stipends.

Kidnapping levels off Nigeria in 2016 ended up below those recorded in 2010, 2013 and 2014. However, the relative decrease does not point to improvements in the security environment offshore. Few arrests have been made of kidnapping groups and little has been done to uproot these gangs. Instead, shipping operators have become better at responding to the threat. Several unsuccessful kidnap attempts in 2016 point to improved security measures deployed by vessels.

Dedicated Nigerian kidnapping groups that are almost exclusively financially motivated will continue to pose a high threat to crew in the coming year. This has been the most financially successful business model for groups engaged in maritime crime in the past five years. Kidnapping rates can often be determined by socioeconomic factors, particularly lack of employment opportunities and kidnapping groups’ ability to supplement their income from alternative sources. The reinstatement of amnesty payments to former militants in 2017 will provide additional income to Niger delta communities, but several active criminal groups will continue to target ships as long as the reward outweighs the risk.

In the Sulu Sea, the Philippines-based Islamist extremist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) changed its long-established kidnapping tactics in 2016, moving from primarily onshore to offshore abductions of crew from fishing vessels, tugs and – from late 2016 – larger commercial vessels. The group kidnapped more than 50 foreign victims in more than 20 separate attacks during the last nine months of 2016, compared with five known foreign victims, all onshore, in 2015. The trend of offshore abductions is set to continue in 2017, as the littoral states in the region – Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia – are not adequately equipped to tackle the threat. This trend is explored in more detail in our recent report on the Abu Sayyaf Group’s activities.

Increase in terrorism in ports and offshore, Yemen insecurity a major threat

Maritime terrorism and militancy in the Middle East and North Africa stood out as the most significant evolving threat for maritime operators in 2016. Control Risks recorded a sharp increase in cases of militants or terrorists targeting port infrastructure, naval and commercial vessels, or offshore platforms. Libya and Yemen accounted for most of these, witnessing several high-profile attacks. These included attacks by Islamic State (IS) militants on Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil export terminals in Libya in January 2016, and a series of attacks on naval and commercial vessels off Yemen’s Red Sea coast by Houthi militants since October 2016, most recently in January 2017. Isolated incidents of maritime militancy were also recorded in Nigeria, Somalia, Thailand and Ukraine.

For global shipping, insecurity in Yemen is the greatest concern, given the potential for disruption of trade in the Bab el-Mandeb, a key chokepoint for shipping. Yemen is likely to see a continuation of militant activity along the Red Sea coast over the coming months. As the military offensive in western Yemen intensifies, Houthi militants or disillusioned Yemenis with extreme anti-Western or anti-government sympathies are likely to launch isolated attacks along the coast. US and Saudi coalition naval assets are likely to remain the primary targets. The use of unmanned remote-controlled vessel-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) – or suicide boats – in two separate incidents in October 2016 and January 2017 signals an enhanced capability and increased intent to target a wider range of assets offshore.

Meanwhile, political fragmentation in Libya has resulted in a lack of rule of law, and rivalry between competing legislatures and armed groups will continue to pose significant security and operational threats to ships transiting in coastal areas and calling at the country’s ports. The primary threat to shippers will be sudden changes to control of key oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Sirte, which will lead to disruption and uncertainty. However, 2017 is likely to see a decline in attacks on coastal infrastructure by militants affiliated to IS. This is a result of the group’s loss of territory in and around Sirte since May 2016, and in Benghazi, which has reduced the group’s capabilities. Although isolated attacks are possible in 2017, militants will be unlikely to carry out a sustained campaign of attacks on coastal infrastructure.

In Nigeria, more than 25 new militant groups emerged in the Niger delta during 2016. The most prominent was the Niger Delta Avengers, which claimed at least three attacks on underwater pipelines and an unmanned offshore platform. Ongoing talks between militant groups and the Nigerian authorities have reduced overall levels of violence, including attacks on pipelines, in 2017 compared with 2016. Meanwhile, the Nigerian government’s reinstatement of amnesty pay-outs for former militants in the 2017 budget is likely to stem the emergence of further self-declared ‘militant’ groups. However, the financial incentives presented by inclusion in talks are likely to motivate some groups to seek to demonstrate their importance by carrying out offensive operations. Incidents of sabotage to onshore infrastructure by existing groups are likely to continue, albeit on a less coordinated level than seen in 2016.

Anchorage crime

Anchorage crime remains one of the most widely reported threats to commercial shipping globally, with regional trends shifting in line with the capability of local security forces to respond. Control Risks’ top three ports for recorded anchorage crime in 2015 – Belawan (Indonesia), Vung Tau (Vietnam) and Chittagong (Bangladesh) – have seen decreases in activity, and were replaced by Apapa-Lagos (Nigeria – fifth in 2015), Pointe-Noire (Congo) and Callao (Peru). Callao in particular stood out in 2016, with declining socioeconomic conditions prompting groups to steal ship’s stores and cash from vessels in the port. Indonesia will remain a hotspot for theft and robbery from anchored vessels in 2017, as some local communities have become dependent on the income generated by re-selling of ship’s stores.

Similarly, although there has been a drop in recorded anchorage crime across West African ports in the past two years, operators should ensure that deck watches are carried out in Congo (Brazzaville), Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone in particular, where high levels of activity by global standards continue to be reported. Crew members need to be particularly vigilant in monitoring access at ports with high levels of such crime.

Looking forward

The trends seen globally in 2016 highlight the dynamic nature of groups engaged in offshore crime. The interplay between sociopolitical developments onshore and the frequency of offshore crime was particularly visible in the Gulf of Guinea. Security force responses in the different regions will also play a key role in determining how groups recalibrate their activities in 2017. Despite an overall global decrease in maritime security incidents, cases of high-severity maritime terrorism and kidnaps increased. These trends are likely to continue, and will pose significant threats to maritime operators in 2017.