The 23 December pirate attack on an Italian ship 40 nautical miles off the coast of Nigeria's Bayelsa state is part of a growing trend in Africa's Gulf of Guinea region. Four crew members were kidnapped.
Land-based kidnappings are also on the rise. Until recently, money has seemed to be the primary aim of kidnappers. But a new threat is emerging. Yesterday, the Islamic group Ansaru claimed it was behind last week's kidnapping in northern Nigeria of French engineer Francis Colump. Previous speculation centered on the al-Qaada linked Boko Haram.
Of ten piracy incidents reported in December by the Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau, five were in waters off Africa - three near Somalia, two off the Nigerian coast and one, consisting of two separate approaches, to vessels near Lome, Togo.
A report in the Christian Science Monitor early this year suggested that west Africa is becoming the next piracy hot spot. The report said the cost of piracy, including cargo theft and higher insurance and security costs, had reached an estimated $2 billion annually, compared with $7 billion from piracy off Somalia.
There have been more than 50 reported incidents in west Africa in 2012, according to the Maritime Bureau. Half of them were off Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer.
Over time, attacks have expanded from cargoes seized off smaller boats to hijacking ships that are taken to tankers, where petroleum or other products are transferred. A ship near Bayelsa on 13 December managed to repel a pirate attack, but a security officer was killed and two injured in a 20-minute exchange of gunfire, according to the Piracy Reporting Centre.
The Italian foreign ministry said that three of the four crew members kidnapped Sunday were Italian. The Associated Press reported that the attacked ship was the Asso Ventuno operated by a company in Naples.
Kidnapping complements the value of stolen shipments as a source of revenue for pirates. On 17 December, five Indian sailors were taken from a Belgian ship. Many of the pirate attacks up and down Africa's west coast are thought to be the work of increasingly sophisticated and heavily armed Nigerian criminal enterprises.
But kidnappings in Nigeria extend far beyond the country's oil-rich waters. In another 17 December raid, five construction workers were seized.
What South Africa's Institute for Security Studies last year called Nigeria's "culture of criminal kidnapping", which it warned was on the rise, has produced high-profile victims, including the father of Nigerian football star Michael Obi, a Chelsea midfielder, and Nkem Owoh, an actor in Nigeria's flourishing Nollywood film industry.
Earlier this month the mother of Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former World Bank managing director was kidnapped from her home and released several days later. Nigerian media reported that a ransom was paid after tense negotiations on the amount, but the government did not confirm the stories.
Piracy and terrorist attacks are two of the problems expected to be the focus of stepped-up United States military engagement in Africa. Answering a question after a speech this month at George Washington University, General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. Africa Command - Africom - based in Stuttgart, Germany, said Africom now has a rapid-response or quick-strike force. The unit, based at Fort Carson, Colorado, will likely have counter-terrorism and other special forces operators "forward deployed" in Africa much of the time, according to Stars and Stripes, a U.S. Defense Department-authorized news service whose editorial independence is guaranteed by Congress.
The Associated Press is reporting that a U.S. army brigade of around 3500 soldiers will be giving anti-terrorism training to troops of a majority of African countries by the second quarter of 2013. Based in Fort Riley, Kansas, the group is not intended to be as combat force.
The seizure of the French engineer, employed by the energy firm Vergnet, may signal a growing threat by militia-style groups in Nigeria. Some 30 gunmen killed two people, including a security guard, in their attack on Colump's residence in a private compound in the town of Rimi, near Nigeria's border with Niger. Vergnet is working with Nigeria's power officials to develop a wind farm in Katsina state.