Sahel and Gulf of Guinea: where piracy, terrorism and organized crime meet

(To Enrico Magnani)

We tend to believe that proximity is a key element in assessing whether events that take place within a state and / or a neighboring geographical area can have an impact on the daily life of a country. According to this logic, a state perceived as distant is erroneously considered unable to influence our daily activities. However, in a globalized and interconnected world like the one of today, it is not possible to remain isolated from the events that occur in other places, even interesting different spheres, both on a political, economic, legislative or social level.

In the case of illegal acts it is possible that their consequences cross borders and affect other geographical areas, affecting the lives of individuals and groups, the economy, security and politics. At this juncture, some criminal phenomena are more striking than others, as in the case of terrorism, organized crime in the Sahel and piracy and armed robbery at sea (now worryingly growing in the Gulf of Guinea). In fact, these criminal phenomena affect a scale that exceeds the regional scope and in a different way, they impact the political, economic and security relations of geographic areas distant from both the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea.

The Gulf of Guinea, the new epicenter of maritime piracy after the Indian Ocean

The Gulf of Guinea is a maritime region of the Atlantic Ocean that includes about 6.000 km of coastline; as part of West and Central Africa, two sub-regions meet there: the northern one, which includes Senegal, Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and the southern one with Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo, Sao Tome and Príncipe, Democratic Republic of the Congo (even if for a very short distance). Among them are some of the major hydrocarbon producers (this immense space has large reserves of crude oil and natural gas), mineral, agricultural and fishing reserves.

All resources that are exported by sea to relatively nearby western markets. This makes the Gulf of Guinea a contribution to the energy security - an extremely topical issue, given the situation between Russia and Ukraine - of countries that import hydrocarbons, such as those of the EU. In this way, and due to the geographical position of these countries, the Gulf of Guinea acquires a special importance when it is used as a possible transit area for maritime traffic to and from the American continent and sub-Saharan Africa with Europe. Therefore, it is a hub for the entry of energy supplies, as well as for other resources in the area, such as iron, gold, diamonds, fishing, agricultural products and fruit. This energy potential, in particular, but generally economic, is reduced as the Gulf of Guinea is considered a highly insecure and unstable area.

As often happens, maritime security and stability problems originate and / or contribute to problems on the territory and all the states mentioned are undergoing serious problems ranging from the weakening or disappearance of central powers, to corruption, the entrenchment of violence and internal instability. In other words, governance is very weak and many states are on the verge of being considered bankrupt; first of all, they pay for an internal situation of ethnic-religious division, artificial borders and consequently irredentist / separatist phenomena (legacy both of colonialism and of the settlement of the former German colonies after the First World War as for Togo and Cameroon) and the harmful effects of a post colonial robbery, which by supporting leadership enslaved by external economic and political powers, exploit local resources and distorting local economies, such as agricultural ones, which allowed self-subsistence (for example with the superproduction of coffee and cocoa).

An emblematic example is Nigeria, where this situation has created an explosive mix that has led, among other things, to a significant development of crime, especially at sea, which manifests itself through maritime criminal activities such as piracy and trade and fishing. illicit. This state of affairs threatens the stability and fluidity of maritime trade - it is estimated that up to 90% of world trade is transported by sea - having a major impact on shipping. In fact, they are criminal acts that cause insecurity, higher costs for maritime transport (starting with insurance and freight), and endanger the lives of those who pass through them, causing serious economic and material damage.

This is especially true in the Gulf of Guinea, where there are around 1.500 fishing boats, oil tankers and merchant ships sailing in its waters every day. This was accentuated after COVID-19, limiting the limited public resources allocated to maritime safety to dedicate them to health systems (already very weak for themselves). The increase in maritime risk has led to a reduction in world trade in the West Africa area and, therefore, in the economic growth of those countries, with a consequent increase in poverty and unemployment.

In relation to this, an increase in the range of pirates has been found, up to the Ivory Coast and south of Gabon, becoming a source of alternative income and livelihood for the population. This scenario worsened in the year 2020, with the fall in the price of oil due to the drop in demand. The concomitance of these factors has left oil tankers more vulnerable to increased pirate activity.

In 2020, according to theInternational Maritime Bureau, the Gulf of Guinea recorded 84 attacks on ships, with 135 seafarers kidnapped for ransom. The Gulf of Guinea experienced a nearly 50% increase in ransom kidnappings between 2018 and 2019 and about 10% between 2019 and 2020. The region now accounts for just over 95% of all kidnappings for the purpose of ransom at sea.

However, this clashes with official data for 2021, which ended with 132 incidents of a different nature, with 115 approaches, 11 attack attempts, 5 attacks made and the hijacking of one of them. These figures are the lowest recorded for piracy and armed robbery since the year 1994, and are associated with the decrease in maritime piracy offenses in this area, greater cooperation by regional authorities and an increased presence of international warships. , precisely because of the importance of their resources and geographical position.

Is it true?

But this apparent contradiction may be due to the so-called dark figure. Those criminal acts that are not officially notified, therefore do not appear in institutional statistics and should therefore be interpreted with caution, since it is estimated that up to half of the cases are not reported and, therefore, of many even their existence is unknown. Among the reasons that lead to this dubious reporting are the costs that a delay in an investigation can entail for companies, bad publicity both for the port where the attack took place, and on a global scale for the shipping company of the ship.

Therefore, and despite the potential inaccuracy of the data per se, the Gulf of Guinea remains a very important center of maritime piracy.

Maritime piracy activity in the Gulf of Guinea and its impact for Europe

To profit economically, maritime piracy has developed an entrepreneurial profile: the illegal oil market. The oil industry is the pillar of the economy of the Gulf of Guinea area, given the existence of a large black market for crude oil. In other words, oil stolen from ships, in order to enter an economic circle, requires an organized criminal network that makes its illegal trade profitable. In addition, the pirates profit from other revenue related to the hijacking of ships, such as seizure and ransom for the release of crews.

The evolution and rise of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a concern for Europe, as many shipping and fishing companies operate in the region. Piracy also affects through the increase in the cost of insurance in maritime transport, which generates higher costs for companies, but also affects the price of the transported product, increasing the price of the goods. This was done with surveillance activities, operations, information exchanges and bilateral activities or at the request of the countries of the area, aimed at increasing their maritime capabilities. In addition, efforts are being made to improve the military, maritime and maritime military capabilities of the armed and police forces of the Gulf of Guinea countries as the insecurity generated by piracy not only affects the maritime environment, but also facilitates access to products. illegal through sealed containers in legitimate shipments, thanks to corruption or coercion exercised. This allows for the entry of people, weapons and drugs, which benefits not only organized crime but also terrorist groups located in the Sahel.

The Sahel as a center of operations for criminal organizations

The Sahel is a strip of land located south of the Sahara desert, and which includes the borders between twelve countries, extending from west to east of the continent, about 5.500 kilometers long and with an average width of 400 kilometers. Likewise, it is characterized by being a large space of transition in which community and tribal structures have prevailed over time, with a constant movement in search of resources and for the development of their activities, essentially in the primary sector which, moreover, , they tend to be related to different ethnicities. For this reason, it is the climate, as well as its accidents, which dictate the pace of life of its inhabitants. However, the constant increase of the population and the controversy of resources - rather scarce - generate controversies that quickly lead to ethnic conflicts. To the above must be added the movements of caravans and businesses, which circulate along the same routes of thousands of years ago and which have created a communication network in Africa. This network has managed to transcend the continent with which to connect Europe and thus obtain advantages, both for trade and for the mobility possibilities it offers to the population.

The Sahel is therefore a center of very important interconnections uniting peoples, countries and continents through their ancient routes. However, that same network in the vast territories that make up the Sahel has been exploited by new non-state and transnational structures which, thanks to the permeability of borders and the lack of effective border control by national authorities, facilitates complete freedom of movement. , and the establishment of criminal and terrorist groups in the region. These groups, finding fertile ground, have taken advantage of the great political instability and distrust in the system, facilitated by the limited resources of the state for its defense and by the vastness of the territories that have favored the growth of a culture of impunity that has contributed to strengthen the dominance of criminal organizations among the population. In this way, the Sahel, a long trade route and human mobility, is today a favorable space for organized crime and terrorism, creating a greater destabilization and impact on the development and security of the region, with alarming effects that make this place a paradise for criminal activities.

The coexistence of terrorism and organized crime in the Sahel

The fact that terrorism and organized crime have formed alliances is a well-known factor that has established a series of dynamics characterized by their adaptation to circumstances, acquiring a leading role as a “power manager” and creating a new political and socio-economic context. In a nutshell, the formation of alliances gives continuity to business and the survival of organized crime and terrorism, as the lack of control and governance, combined with the instability of the territory, allows for high levels of mobility and impunity. In any case, for their survival these groups need an ever-increasing flow of human, financial and material resources. For this reason, the recruitment of new ones follower criminals is key; not surprisingly, they are more trained and equipped than the military forces and security organs of the area. To obtain these resources, they need to control the ancient routes of the Sahel which have always been used by nomads who controlled the routes of the Sahara desert, charging tolls to the merchants who crossed them. Today they are used by various criminal networks, for the control of the territory and illegal activities such as the trafficking of drugs, tobacco, weapons, food, fuel and human beings.

The Sahel is a "space of transition", roads along which goods and people have always traveled, and is used by criminal networks. These paths imply new and possible sources of crime and synergies, which have now also crossed continental borders.

Effects of violent armed groups in the Sahel for Europe

As with the Gulf of Guinea, it has become clear that the Sahel is at the center of terrorist threats, illicit trafficking and ethnic / religious / tribal conflicts. Also in the Sahel there is a special interest of the EU; among the nations of the Union, the one most exposed for reasons of geographical proximity, there is Spain, which with the presence of the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla and the Canary archipelago feels particularly affected by the phenomena related to instability of West Africa and the Sahel. So we should not be surprised that the Sahel region is of prime interest for Brussels (and Madrid) with military assistance and training missions on the African continent. For organized crime, the connections with terrorism represent new opportunities for illicit trade, from which it derives enormous economic profits - generally, through extortion - which allow it to finance the expansion of its criminal or terrorist activities. At the same time, this promotes increased political and social corruption, further weakening the pillars of statehood with nations increasingly unable to address this landscape or take advantage of it. Thus, the collaboration between different criminal networks and terrorism not only weakens states, but creates failed states, causing cracks in the system that are exploited by those same networks, creating favorable environments for the achievement and fulfillment of their goals for the development of their activities. criminals, necessary for their survival. The weaker the state, the greater the ability to develop criminal activities, going unpunished.

These growth opportunities have materialized in the Gulf of Guinea, where organized crime has long been profitable in smuggling fuel and financing pirate groups. At the same time, terrorist groups have managed to expand south from the Sahel, through actions carried out last year in Benin, Ivory Coast, Congo and DRC - countries belonging to the Gulf of Guinea -, from the Daesh and Al Qaeda territorial branches, establishing the first alliances with violent Islamist groups that already existed in the territory, such as the ADF (Allied Democratic Force) or Ansar Al Sunna. This has allowed them to increase their influence in those territories, finding new areas to recruit new members, stockpile weapons and finance themselves.

Furthermore, the possibilities offered by the geographical position of the Gulf of Guinea and its access to the sea allows them to establish alliances with other types of criminal groups, such as those involved with smuggling, piracy or organized crime, present on the territory. Being close to the sea allows us to continue to develop a form of terrorism, maritime terrorism, which in itself is not new, which offers other advantages to terrorist organizations, due to the vulnerabilities of maritime traffic itself.

For example, the increased use of containers in trade - which can be used by terrorist groups for the transport of weapons and people, sometimes not being registered in their entirety, or the economic damage that a terrorist attack could inflict on the economies of countries considered "Without God", reducing trade flows. This leads to an increase in their range and the presence of terrorist groups that come down to the coast, while organized crime continues to engage in illegal trade. So these criminal phenomena complement each other, as long as their interests coincide, even if their goals are not the same; in fact, organized crime seeks profit, while jihadist terrorists intend to establish an Islamic state. This does not constitute an impediment to establishing new alliances whenever they need them, even with entities that do not coincide with their values, but that can be instrumental to their strategic objectives, such as the drug trade to weaken the social structures of the world. western.


By way of reflection, the development, evolution and continuous adaptation of these groups has long since materialized and, as we have seen, their alliances continue to perpetuate criminal acts that devastate the region. Contrary to what it may seem, these criminal phenomena take place in spaces closer than they may seem; not only because of Spain's proximity to the African continent, but thanks to the network of millenary routes linking the Sahel and Europe in growing use. Hence, the events taking place in the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel influence European politics and economy, in the context of trade security and many other sectors. It seems evident that the region is increasingly becoming a 'safe haven' for pirates, terrorists and groups related to organized crime, so it is necessary to continue to act, helping local states not only by cooperating to improve their security but by contributing to political stability. and institutional and their economic and social development.

Image: ISS