By Carlo Muñoz - 01/24/13 10:35 PM EST
Defense Department and U.S. intelligence officials are awaiting word from their Algerian counterparts, who are questioning two gunmen involved in last Wednesday's raid on a BP-owned oil field in western Algeria, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Thursday.
"We understand the Algerians are questioning two individuals that they were able to capture during this operation," he said. "We're hoping that we'll get better information from them specifically as to who was involved."
Members of Islamic militant group "Signers in Blood" claimed responsibility for the raid, in which several U.S. citizens along with 40 foreign nationals were held hostage during the assault.
An attempt by Algerian special operations forces to storm the BP facility last week ended with the deaths of three Americans and 34 other hostages. On Monday, the State Department named Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio as the three U.S. citizens killed during the hostage rescue attempt.
"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," President Obama said in a statement released Saturday.
Washington was working closely with Algerian officials to track down members of the extremist group that carried out the attack, according to Obama.
The White House took on a similar counterstrike planning effort shortly after last September's deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, which ended with the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
U.S. special operations units were sent to Libya to conduct surveillance operations and communications intercepts and to gather human intelligence from local sources in an attempt to pinpoint the individuals who carried out the consulate attack in Benghazi.
The Pentagon's elite Joint Special Operations Command, in conjunction with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, were assembling "target packages" on suspected militants associated with the attack, according to reports at the time.
But with Algeria, DOD and other intelligence agencies are still trying to determine exactly which members of the Algerian militant group planned the attack, and whether that planning was supported by al Qaeda's factions in Africa.
"That will be the first challenge, is to determine precisely who was involved here," Panetta said "Americans were killed, and we don't stand by when Americans are killed and not take action."
That said, al Qaeda's West African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), did take credit for the Algerian attack, according to Panetta.
The problem is the erratic and unpredictable way terror groups in North and West Africa interact with each other, making it difficult to make the connections between those groups and the Algerian attack.
"They work together when it's convenient to them," Dempsey said, referring to AQIM, as well as al Qaeda-linked groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, al Shabab in Somalia and various other offshoots operating on the continent.
"What we have to be alert to is that, as we look at these individual groups or individual countries, we have to acknowledge the connective tissue there," the four-star general added.
"That takes us to a regional strategy, not necessarily a country-specific strategy," Dempsey said.