A mysterious group called the Niger Delta Avengers has launched a series of strikes directed against underwater oil pipelines, putting a significant dent in Nigeria’s output of oil and appearing to tip the government into a economic recession. The attacks, directed against Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and an Italian company called Eni SpA, are conducted by teams that descend underwater using diving equipment before employing explosive charges on the pipelines. Demonstrating a level of sophistication beyond previous Nigerian militants, be they MEND or Boko Haram, the identity of these underwater demolition teams remains a mystery.
Douw Steyn is the author of Iron Fist from the Sea a book about the history of his former unit, South Africa’s 4 Recce which specialized in maritime special operations including attack diving. Steyn told SOFREP, “The divers that do this operation are highly skilled and trained in the military or by instructors that left the military and know how to train individuals to became attack divers.” Attack diving, a specialized skill employed by 4 Recce could be compared to the underwater demolition operations that Navy SEALs are trained for.
Underwater demolitions are complicated in nature due difficulties in working in a sub-surface environment, and require long hours of training and rehearsals, as well as mission planning, and reconnaissance. “The target information is the most important information to have,” Steyn said “because with that information, you do your planning on what type of explosives, how many explosives and the depth of the charges. It also give you the specific place to put the bombs/mines, and of the weaknesses of the target the other point that will be planned in detail is the time delay on the mines, this is determined by the surroundings and means of transport the attackers are using [such as] small craft, submarines, and inflatables.”
Retired Delta Force operator and SOFREP contributing writer, George Hand, commented that the Niger Delta Avengers are too good to not have previous training. “They have gone unscathed for four years and hit countless targets successfully. The have an S-2 capability; there is an intelligence collection and dissemination of target value and priority. They are successfully storing explosives, and are hitting steel targets,” Hand who also served as an instructor at the Special Forces Combat Diver school said. “Diving is a skill, but we don’t know the difficulty level of the dives,” he continued. “Are they at night in (very likely) zero-vis at great depths?”
Regarding the terrorist group’s level of organization, Hand offered that, “They are successfully living and operating out of clandestine FOBs [Forward Operating Bases] in mangroves. Mangroves are a really hard environment. They have to be well-organized and with strong leadership to accomplish all they are doing.”
Former SEAL Team 3 member, Brandon Webb, added that, “Offshore combat diving and planting explosives is very technical. It sounds like what’s happening in Nigeria is less complicated but does hint at some basic understanding of how underwater explosives work and that is taught mostly in first world military training.”
An African security expert commented to SOFREP anonymously that the Nigerians have been training deep water divers for some time to repair the country’s oil infrastructure. It is not implausible that a few of them decided that they could make more money working for the Niger Delta Avengers. George Hand confirmed the possibility saying, “industrial divers are as good if not better than military divers.”
For the time being, it remains unknown as to whether the Niger Delta Avengers attack divers are former Special Forces men turned mercenaries or if they are Nigerian industrial divers parlaying their skill set into something more lucrative.
As to the agenda of the Niger Delta Avengers, some have speculated that they are being run by associates of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan who may be trying to actively discredit his political opposition in the form of sitting President Muhammadu Buhari. “This could not come at a worse time for the government of Muhammadu Buhari who vowed to crush militancy and bring down the level of violence in Nigeria, firstly by tackling Boko Haram,” Al Jeezera reported in regards to the oil infrastructure attacks.
Currently, the Nigerian government is holding former national security advisor Sambo Dasuki and the former special assistant on domestic matters, Dr. Waripamowei Dudafa on corruption charges. Both men served the Goodluck Jonathan government, and while others implicated have been released on bail, they continue to be held captive by the government. In the Nigerian press there has been some thought that these men continue to be held because they pose a national security risk as they may have involvement with the Niger Delta Avengers.
The underwater demolitions operations waged against foreign oil companies in Nigeria represents an interesting departure from past terrorist attacks and is actually a form of economic warfare which produces few casualties in the process. Thus far, the Niger Delta Avengers seem uninterested in getting into firefights with the Nigerian military. While their end game remains unknown, it seems clear that they are attempting to hit the Nigerian government in the pocketbook, giving the militants increased political leverage to negotiate for future concessions from the government.
Nigeria had the ability to produce 2.5 million barrels of a oil a day, but with the underwater pipeline attacks, this has dropped to just 680,000 barrels per day. Whatever their goals, the puppet masters behind the Niger Delta Avengers seem likely to get whatever it is that they want from oil companies and the Nigerian government.