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Pirate Attack Off Nigeria: Part of a Trend in West Africa

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Sailors aboard the USS Simpson man the rails while passing a Ghana Navy's patrol vessel in the Gulf of Guinea last year. The U.S. Navy has conducted security partnership exercises aimed at improving maritime safety in the gulf, where two Americans were kidnapped from an oil-supply platform this week. (Photograph courtesy U.S. Navy)

The kidnapping of two American citizens from an oil-supply platform vessel off the coast of Nigeria has put the spotlight on the sharp rise in pirate attacks in West Africa.

On Thursday, a U.S. official said the captain and chief engineer of the U.S.-flagged C-Retriever were taken by armed men who stormed the 200-foot ship in the Gulf of Guinea (map) on Wednesday. (See related slide: “Oil Development Grows in Africa.”)

The ship is owned by the Louisiana-based company Edison Chouest Offshore, which hasn’t commented on the situation.

The Captain Phillips movie released this month brought attention to pirate attacks off Africa’s East Coast in the Gulf of Aden. The movie is based on the real-life story of the attack on the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-ship, off Somalia in April 2009, and the harrowing rescue of its crew by U.S. Navy SEAL Snipers.

But the number of attacks in that area has actually fallen recently due to the patrols of naval forces from several nations and the presence of armed security guards on merchant ships.

At the same time, attacks in the western Gulf of Guinea — which tend to be more violent — have risen. While the pirates in the Gulf of Aden seemed mainly interested in collecting ransom money from the companies that own the ships, the heavily armed pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more likely to keep the gas oil they get from successful attacks and sell it on the black market, according to a report from Communis Hostis Omnium.

According to a report from the ICC International Maritime Bureau earlier this month, there have been 10 Somali-related incidents this year, down from 70 during the same period in 2012. Meanwhile, there have been 40 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea this year, with 132 crew taken hostage and seven vessels hijacked.

“Although the number of attacks is down overall [worldwide], the threat of attacks remains, particularly in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea,” said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan in its report. “It is vital that ship masters continue to be vigilant as they transit these waters.”

The London-based think tank Chatham House reported 62 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012, up from 39 in 2010, according to CNN.

Nigeria, where the C-Retriever was targeted, is the main source of piracy in the region, according to the IMB. The nation accounted for 29 of the reported incidents and the group warns that many attacks there, which generally happen along the coasts, rivers and ports, may have gone unreported.

Perhaps boosting to the pirates’ confidence, the governments in West Africa do not allow armed private security guards on board ships, and Nigeria is known for its weak port security, reported The New York Times.

The Gulf of Guinea is an oil-rich area, and while Nigeria has had oil development for many years, several countries have been tapping oil there for the first time recently. The Chatham House says the gulf produces about 5.4 million barrels of a day. (See related story: “New Oil, and a Huge Challenge, for Ghana.”)

In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams on Thursday, the Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips called the waters off Nigeria “worse than even Somalia.”

“Wherever the opportunity for these thugs or pirates are, they will take advantage of it, and Nigeria is teeming right now,” Phillips said.

“Hijacks are over in the Indian Ocean. The hijack for cargo threat in West Africa is where you are going to get hit,” said maritime intelligence expert Jim Mainstone at the International Union of Marine Insurance 2013 conference, according to a September report in Lloyd’s List.

Nigerian military officials deployed army and navy units to search for the kidnappers but told NBC Thursday that they had no “hard information” on their location or the whereabouts of the Americans.

“We’re obviously closely monitoring reports that two U.S. citizens have been kidnapped from a U.S. flagged vessel,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a briefing on Thursday. “Obviously our concern at this point is for the safe return of the two U.S. citizens.”