Pretend Pirates and the Case of a Missing Oil Tanker

Fake piracy or not, this ship took a detour. Its crew is safe, but its cargo is gone.

Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

It's not quite as strange as a cannibal-rat-infested ghost ship, but it's still pretty puzzling: The crew of an oil tanker appear to have made themselves, and their vessel, disappear off the coast of Angola for a few days in order to "fake" a pirate attack.

Or did they? Conflicting statements from the Angolan navy and the corporation that owns the tanker are making it difficult to decipher what really happened, and why.

Maritime security experts were very concerned when the Kerala, ​a Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged tanker carrying 60,000 metric tons of diesel and a 27-person crew, went off the radar en route to the Angolan capital of Luanda last week. Dynacom Tankers, which owns and operates the Kerala, lost all contact with the ship on January 18. An unknown, suspicious tugboat had been located near the Kerala around the same time that the ship disappeared, and Dynacom suspected that pirates had hijacked the Kerala. 

Though pirate activity off the coast of Somalia has significantly decreased over the past year, it has been on the upswing on the opposite side of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea. Pirates frequently hijack oil tankers to steal fuel and a hijacking in Angolan waters, further down the coast, would be "a worrying development in West African maritime crime," in the words of Dryad Maritime intelligence director Ian Millen. The hijacking of the Kerala, in fact, would be the southernmost incident to date. "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," Millen told the press on January 22.

It should have been a relief, then, when the Angolan navy announced on Sunday that the tanker had been found and that it had not been hijacked by pirates. Except, on its face, the navy's story makes very little sense: According to Reuters, the crew "turned off communications" on January 18 "to fake an attack, seeking to calm energy sector fears that the vessel had been hijacked by pirates." So ... they faked a pirate attack in order to assuage fears about pirate attacks?

A tanker and tugboat, similar to the tanker and tugboat that traveled from Angola to Nigeria this week in what was either a real act of piracy or a "simulation." (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

"It was all faked, there have been no acts of piracy in Angolan waters," an Angolan navy spokesman said. "What happened on January 18, when we lost contact with the ship, was that the crew disabled the communications on purpose. There was no hijacking." The spokesman, Augusto Alfredo, told reporters that the Kerala had been in Luanda when it was approached by a tugboat, and that the Kerala's crew then turned off all communications and followed the tugboat to Nigeria. “Our concern that it was an act of piracy proved unfounded. It’s no more than a simulation by the crew of the tanker and the tug’s agent,” Alfredo said.

When the Kerala was found, it was in Nigeria—and missing its cargo. Dynacom is disputing the claims of Angola's navy, insisting that the vessel was hijacked and its cargo stolen. This afternoon the AFP confirmed earlier reports that one crew member suffered an injury in connection with the tanker's mysterious activity. "All crew members are alive and accounted for, but one is wounded and all have clearly been affected by their ordeal," said Dynacom. The AFP also quoted a company source who said that the Angolan navy was trying to evade responsibility for the incident by denying that it was an act of piracy. "Angola is trying to cover up how a loaded vessel was taken in an area under its protection," said the source, and "there will now have to be an investigation by US authorities and Interpol."