Africa's New Pirate Problem
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio

One night in february 2011, the Ocean Mariner, a 450-foot chemical tanker, was sailing in the Gulf of Guinea near the coast of Benin, a small but strategically vital West African nation. Laden with 11,000 tons of oil and diesel worth approximately $10 million, the Mariner was at cruising speed – 11 knots – heading to Nigeria to refuel. At one point, the duty officer spied a fishing trawler two miles away. Then he noticed that a speedboat filled with armed men had launched from the trawler's deck. Before the Mariner's crew could do anything, the men had reached the ship, tossed a hooked rope over the railing, and shinnied up the hull. "They took us totally by surprise," one sailor recalls. Brandishing Kalashnikovs, a machine gun, and rocket-propelled grenades, the eight men punched the duty officer, slapped around other crew members, and ordered the communications officer to sever radio contact and disable the satellite tracking device. They placed the crew under guard in the mess hall and then marched the captain and chief officer to the bridge, saying, "Steer where we tell you to steer."

The Ocean Mariner navigated out into the open sea. The pirates paced the deck, working their satellite phones in search of a broker in neighboring Nigeria who was willing to purchase the stolen fuel and charter a tanker to "load and lift" it off the Mariner. Forty-eight hours later, they hooked hoses up to two smaller tankers and drained the Mariner's tanks. When those were empty, the pirates, $10 million wealthier, disappeared.