WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two cases this week involving American piracy victims in Africa have highlighted the maritime dangers in the region. However, maritime experts say there are significant differences in the causes and response to piracy off the coast of Somalia and incidents in the troubled Gulf of Guinea, near Nigeria.
A judge in Norfolk, Virginia has ordered Somali national Ahmed Muse Salad to serve 19 consecutive life sentences for his role in the 2011 murders of four Americans.
Salad was among a group of Somali pirates who boarded a yacht carrying its American owners and two crew members off Africa's east coast. The four Americans were shot and killed after negotiations with the U.S. navy broke down.
In another case, the State Department said two Americans who were kidnapped by pirates off Nigeria's coast last month have been freed. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki welcomed their release, but provided few details.
"For privacy reasons, we will not provide any additional information on the two individuals or the circumstances of their release," said Psaki.
The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center reports that the overall number of piracy attacks near Somalia has dropped over the past year, largely due to increased naval patrols.
There were 11 reported incidents of piracy near Somalia, including two hijackings, between January and October of this year.
Around the waters of Nigeria, there were 30 reported incidents in the same period, including two hijackings.
James Bridger, a maritime security consultant with Delex Systems, said that what is often referred to as piracy near Nigeria is actually an extension of criminal behavior on shore.
“In the Gulf of Guinea as a whole it is, at its lowest level, it is simply robbing ships at anchor, at berth. That’s a really opportunistic affair. You also have kidnap for ransom both on land and at sea,” explained Bridger.
Bridger pointed out that many of the security measures that have been effective in curbing piracy off Somalia's coast do not exist in the Gulf of Guinea.
"For one, armed guards are not allowed inside of the territorial waters of Nigeria in particular, or really any state in West Africa. You can have armed guards outside of the 12 miles, [the] 12 nautical mile territorial limit, but as soon as they go inside, their weapons have to be under lock and key. And, if they are going into Nigeria, which is the most dangerous, they can’t have weapons at all," said Bridger.
Bridger said one of the few options for shipping companies in the region is to "rent" Nigerian security personnel.
Kevin Krick, the Senior Director of Security and Environment for APL, a global transportation company that does shipping in regions including Africa, notes that the extra security measures have a financial impact.
"It means we need to take additional measures to ensure that our vessels are safeguarded. So, there is a cost involved," said Krick.
Krick said that his company is grateful for the naval counter-piracy measures that have been put in place to protect maritime commerce, which he says is a "life-blood" for industry.