Panetta: US has to 'fight back' against al Qaeda after three Americans killed

The terrorist attack in Algeria that left three Americans and 34 other hostages dead shows that al Qaeda is “committed to creating terror" no matter where its members are located and that America has "got to fight back," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.

“I’m glad we were able to get some rescued, but we did lose three Americans,” Panetta told a small group of reporters Monday as he left the inaugural lunch at the Capitol. “That just tells us al Qaeda is committed to creating terror wherever they are, and we’ve got to fight back.”

He said the militant groups have shown a capacity to rebound even after being pushed out of safe havens.

Panetta’s comments reflected a speech he gave in November in which he said the end is not near in the U.S. fight against al Qaeda.

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He noted that U.S. forces had made key gains against the terror group in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, but said it was now seeking new footholds in places like Mali, where the United States has aided a French campaign against Islamist militants.

Panetta described al Qaeda like an adapting cancer.

“We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has also metastasized to other parts of the global body,” he said.

The hostage crisis began Wednesday when an offshoot of al Qaeda's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, stormed a remote natural-gas facility near the Libyan border. The three American hostages killed when Algerian forces intervened were identified Monday by the State Department as Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio. 

"We extend our deepest condolences to their families and friends," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. "Out of respect for the families' privacy, we have no further comment. We are also aware of seven U.S. citizens who survived the attack. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further information to provide.

"As the president said, the blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms. We will continue to work closely with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of the terrorist attack of last week and how we can work together moving forward to combat such threats in the future."

Some foreign governments, including Japan and Great Britain, have complained of being kept out of the loop as Algerian forces prepared to raid the compound. The White House so far has refrained from criticizing Algeria, a key counterterrorism ally.

"The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms," Obama said in a statement Saturday. "We have been in constant contact with Algerian officials and stand ready to provide whatever assistance they need in the aftermath of this attack."

Julian Pecquet contributed to this story.