WASHINGTON — The U.S. and some of its allies are considering plans to increase anti-piracy operations along Africa's west coast, spurred on by concerns that money from the attacks is funding a Nigerian-based insurgent group that is linked to one of al-Qaida's most dangerous affiliates.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has escalated over the past year, and senior U.S. defense and counter-piracy officials say allied leaders are weighing whether beefed up enforcement efforts that worked against pirates off the Somalia coast might also be needed in the waters off Nigeria.
There has been growing coordination between Nigeria-based Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which was linked to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September that killed four Americans, including the ambassador. Military leaders say AQIM has become the wealthiest al-Qaida offshoot and an increasing terrorist threat to the region.
It has long been difficult to track whether there are terrorist ties to piracy in the waters off Africa. But officials are worried that even if Boko Haram insurgents aren't directly involved in the attacks off Nigeria and Cameroon, they may be reaping some of the profits and using the money for ongoing terrorist training or weapons.
No final decisions have been made on how counter-piracy operations could be increased in that region, and budget restrictions could hamper that effort, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about emerging discussions between senior U.S. military commanders and other international leaders.
But officials say the solution could include continued work and counter-piracy training with African nations. The U.S. participated last month in a maritime exercise with European and African partners in the Gulf of Guinea.
"Maritime partnerships and maritime security and safety are increasingly important in the Gulf of Guinea region to combat a variety of challenges including maritime crime, illicit trafficking and piracy," said Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command.
In recent weeks, Ham and other U.S. military commanders have bluntly warned Congress that the terrorist threat from northern Africa has become far more worrisome.
"If the threat that is present in Africa is left unaddressed, it will over time grow to an increasingly dangerous and imminent threat to U.S. interests, and certainly could develop into a threat that threatens us in other places," Ham told Congress earlier this month. "We've already seen from some places in Africa, individuals that — from Nigeria, for example — attempt to enter our country with explosives."
A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was sentenced to life in prison last year for trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear on Christmas 2009. The bomb failed.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts and kidnappings. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association — an umbrella group of insurers — listed oil-rich Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia.
Pirates have been more willing to use violence in their robberies, at times targeting the crew for ransom. And experts suggest that many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive and there's a bustling black market for stolen crude oil.