Argument

Pirates of the Guinean

How West Africa is replacing Somalia as the new pirate lair.

Early on the morning of Oct. 6, 14 pirates boarded a Panamax-size tanker off the coast of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and took its 24 crew members hostage. The pirates then sailed to the coast of Nigeria, where they offloaded close to 2,500 metric tons of gasoline and sold other onboard treasures. Just one month earlier, another band of pirates had damaged the West African Gas Pipeline off the coast of Lomé, Togo, suspending fuel deliveries to Benin, Togo, and Ghana.

This kind of maritime piracy one normally associates with Somalia or the Niger Delta (where five Indian sailors were abducted on December 17) but crime on the high seas is now commonplace throughout the Gulf of Guinea -- the immense body of water between Gabon and Liberia. And with piracy gradually declining off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea is rapidly becoming the world's most dangerous body of water. Between January and September of this year, pirates have attacked 42 vessels and taken 168 crew members hostage -- four of whom ended up dead.

Pirates began targeting ships in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the 1980s. These attacks were generally close to shore and in the form of armed robberies, with theft of not only oil but crew valuables and thousands of dollars in cash. In the last three years, however, attacks have grown more frequent and more violent, and they are occurring farther off the coast. Tankers are the target of choice for today's pirates, both because of their high value and because stationary ship-to-ship oil transfers make them vulnerable as they are linked by pipe.

The rash of attacks has spread from Nigerian waters to Benin, Togo, Ghana, and now Ivory Coast. Even Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea have been hit by well-planned sea raids led by highly organized gangs.

At the same time, the gangs have grown more daring, targeting the presidential palace in Equatorial Guinea in 2009 and pulling off a series of deadly bank robberies in Cameroonian coastal cities in 2011. Increasingly, criminal groups are recruiting local fishermen, who are best able to navigate the waters of the Gulf of Guinea. Lured by the prospect of easy money and facing competition from foreign vessels, many fishermen have sold their boats to pirates or turned to piracy themselves.

And the tide is rising. The region is beset by grinding poverty, political upheaval, and community grievances that stem from perceived injustices in the oil industry. Add to this the development of new offshore oil fields, oil contraband, illegal fishing, and rampant corruption, and you have a volatile mix.

Ineffective governance has also done its part to facilitate the rise of lawlessness on the seas. The countries that line the Gulf of Guinea have so far failed to cooperate in fighting the pirate threat. A border dispute over the Bakassi peninsula divided Nigeria and Cameroon for decades, and although it was recently settled, its legacy of distrust hampers genuine security cooperation between the two countries. Other states have been reluctant to fill the void, leaving the Gulf of Guinea largely unregulated and without an adequate maritime police force.

Each day, the Gulf of Guinea ships 1.5 million barrels of its oil to the United States, as well as 1 million to Europe, 850,000 to China, and 330,000 to India -- altogether, 40 percent of Europe's oil imports and 29 percent of the United States'. The high stakes -- as well as the severity of the problem -- have not gone unnoticed. For example, the Gulf of Guinea Commission recently organized a conference on the issue, stating that it is "worried by the increasing number and the geographic expansion of pirate attacks and armed robberies at sea." The secretary-general of the Economic Community of Central African States agreed that maritime insecurity now extends to the whole region, from "Côte d'Ivoire to Angola."

In the short term, the problem makes trade more costly. In the long term, the result can be far worse: It compromises the region's economic development and the stability of coastal states.

With the support of their trading partners and the private sector, coastal states have started to build navies and coast guards and to deepen security cooperation. In September 2011, Benin and Nigeria launched "Prosperity," an anti-pirate operation. Likewise, Cameroonian authorities have deployed a special unit to patrol the waters off the Bakassi peninsula. The private sector is also stepping up ship security with defensive equipment and armed guards, while the regional organizations in charge of peace and security, ECOWAS and ECCAS, are formulating strategies to combat piracy.

So far, however, this flurry of activity has been uncoordinated, meaning that it will at best serve as a deterrent. To eradicate piracy, states will need to engineer cooperative policing strategies that enable them to tackle the transnational nature of the problem.

More troubling still is that these stopgap measures leave the root causes of maritime insecurity unaddressed. Just as the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden resulted from the collapse of the Somali state, the rise of crime in the Gulf of Guinea is due mainly to poor governance of the regional economy. Piracy and the regional trade in contraband oil are closely linked, and most of the Gulf of Guinea states have been unable to develop legitimate commerce in their maritime zones. Today in Benin, for example, contraband oil represents 95 percent of national consumption -- up from 5 percent in 2000.

Governments in the region should not just prioritize policing of their waters. They must seek to institutionalize regional cooperation and develop their coasts. Strengthening maritime law enforcement should go hand in hand with boosting job creation along the coast. In the Gulf of Guinea, the fight against piracy must be waged on land if it is to be won at sea.

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Apocalypse Now

The five most popular places to watch the end of the world.

In London, the end of the world is only a bus ride away: Just hop on the 328 going south from Golders Green, and take it all the way to World's End. Now a highly desirable district of Chelsea, the area around the western terminus of King's Road once marked the edge of the city -- or, as Cockneys of yore cockily maintained, the edge of the known universe. Hence the name of a popular pub formerly on that location, which perpetuated the terminus of civilization, even as London grew exponentially.

Like the edge of the British capital, the real end of the world is a moving target, prophesied countless times, but never actually materializing. Not yet, anyway. There are those who believe this time will be different, that the rapidly approaching end of the 13th and final baktun, or cycle, of the Mayan Long Count calendar on Dec. 21 will really end it all.

We'll have to wait until the 22nd for the next doomsday date to start gathering steam, but meanwhile, an interesting phenomenon has taken shape: The end of the world is intersecting with the map of the world. The impending advent of the Mayan apocalypse has added a few places to the already crowded field of apocalyptic topography.

This time around, location scouts for the end of the world have decided to snub Chelsea. Instead, they've scared the bejeezus out of the good citizens of Bugarach. That southern French village counts only 200 permanent residents, but that number may swell to thousands on Dec. 20, the presumptive eve of destruction.

The town, on a hillside 50 miles north of the France-Spain border, is dominated by the eponymous Pic de Bugarach, a solitary peak known as the "upside-down mountain," as its top layer is older than the lower ones. That freak of geology has piqued the interest of hippies ever since the 1960s, recently crystallizing in the belief, held by several, if not dozens of, people, that the mountain houses an alien spaceship that will save them when the end comes. It must be said: The Pic does sort of resemble Devils Tower in Wyoming, the central location in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- the daddy of all friendly alien abduction movies.

Whether the 4,000-foot mountain projects "energy," as certain New Age adherents claim, is less measurable than the recent rise in local property prices, the increase in visitor numbers, and the flood of reports of strange goings-on in the woods surrounding the village, including processions of half-naked ramblers climbing up the mountain ringing bells. In fact, the French authorities are so spooked by the occult attraction exerted by the lonely mountain that it has decided to cordon it off in the days surrounding Dec. 21.

Perhaps they're right to be spooked. The upside-down mountain has attracted religious dissenters since, well, heretical Cathars founded Bugarach in the 13th century. Less than 10 miles to the northwest lies Rennes-le-Château, another focal point of esotericism. Perhaps best known as a central location in the novel The Da Vinci Code, treasure supposedly found in Rennes provides clues to the real nature of the Holy Grail -- the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, intertwining with that of early France's Merovingian kings.

The French government agency monitoring religious cults, Miviludes, is keeping a close eye on events in and around Bugarach, anxious to prevent mass suicides à la Heaven's Gate, the sect that chose death in order to migrate to the spaceship hidden behind the 1997 Hale-Bopp comet. Prevention may be the best cure, but it's unclear why a cult would go through all the trouble to try to save itself from the end of the world only to then commit suicide. Unless, of course, the world's stubborn refusal to end proves too much of a disappointment.

Ewan Munro/Flickr; ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images

Bugarach is but one of several options for those looking for an exit on Dec. 21. You could still make your way to Sirince, a small Turkish village not far from the Ionian coast. Its 600 souls live near the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. Sirince also reputedly emanates "positive energy," which some link to a nearby site associated with that other Mary in Jesus's life.

The visions of a 19th-century German nun provided the road map for the discovery, on the summit of a local mountain called the Bulbul Dagi (Mount Nightingale), of the House of the Virgin Mary. This, the supposed site of Mary's Assumption into heaven, has become a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike. Although it never received the Vatican's official stamp of approval, three popes have been to the House of the Virgin: Current Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2006, and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, also visited the nearby Panaya Kapulu (Doorway to the Virgin) and beatified the nun who "found" the house in the early 19th century. Her name, Anne Catherine Emmerich, will sound familiar to fans of the apocalypse: Her namesake, the director Roland Emmerich, is best known for disaster movies such as Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow -- and 2012.

Hotel bookings in Sirince are up, as some speculate that proximity to the location of Mary's assumption will protect them from destruction, or at least enable them to follow her path all the way up to capital-H Heaven. With the business flair typical of Turkish entrepreneurs, local wine producers have produced a special "vintage of the Apocalypse." (Take a few bottles as you descend into your bomb/wine cellar.)

Another mountain drawing in survivalists with its alleged magic is Mount Rtanj, about 130 miles southwest of Belgrade, in the Serbian part of the Carpathians. The Serbian peak is curiously pyramid-shaped, which -- inevitably -- has invited claims of alien involvement, not least by science-fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke, who once claimed the mountain's powerful energy field made it the "navel of the world."

Should the world not have ended on Dec. 22 and you're stranded on the flanks of Mount Rtanj with lots of unexpected time on your hands, you're in luck: Two local traditions might help you wile the days away. Legend has it that Rtanj once housed a castle that contained a golden treasure. A St. George's Chapel on the mountain was blown up a few decades ago by treasure hunters, but no gold has yet been found. Another legend tells of the aphrodisiacal qualities of a local herb, used to brew "invigorating" tea. Perhaps priapism is a good way to forget the disappointment of the non-apocalypse -- or repopulate Earth should it come.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images; tamburix/Flickr

Yet another sanctuary from the end of the world feels like it's there already. The hotels in the northern Chilean oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, on the edge of one of the world's largest salt deposits, have been reporting full bookings for the 21st. This town will be the last, safest place on Earth -- rumors substantiated only, it seems, by the place's otherworldly beauty, near the so-called Valley of the Moon. Other factors include its air purity, which favors astronomical observation, and the presence of the lophophora, a cactus with hallucinogenic qualities, which favors observation of a less scientific kind. The local police are on high alert, and the town's mayor has ordered tents to be at the ready to deal with the influx of apocalypse-spotters.

End-of-day-watching on a budget can be done near Megiddo, a town in northern Israel where hotel rooms are still cheap and plenty. Like Chelsea, it is grossly overlooked by the present batch of doomsday-trippers. Yet the town, founded in 1949 by Holocaust survivors and currently on the edge of the West Bank, is located near the biblical site known as Armageddon (which may derive from Har, or Mount, Megiddo). Not only was this valley the site of several biblical battles and one British-Ottoman engagement at the end of World War I, but it will also be, according to certain end-times prophecies, the location of the final battle between Good and Evil at the end of the world. There's lots of disagreement on the nature of this battle, but it almost never involves aliens -- or Mayans.

When the time will come, nobody knows. But when it does, you can reach Megiddo from Tel Aviv on the 823 bus. As you no doubt have noticed, 823 is the reverse of 328 -- the number of the London bus to the World's End. Coincidence? We think not! Do bring your own refreshments, though; there's no pub at the end of this ride.

Claudioarzola/Wikimedia Commons; Seetheholyland.net/Flickr