Obama administration ponders response to Algerian hostage crisis

“We condemn in the strongest terms a terrorist attack on British Petroleum personnel and facilities at In Amenas, Algeria,” the White House spokesman on national security, Tommy Vietor, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the best information we have at this time indicates that U.S. citizens are among the hostages.”

The attack started at about 5 a.m. local time, when roughly 20 men from the desert region arrived in three vehicles and captured the gas site, which is part-owned by BP. A Briton and an Algerian were killed in the attack.

The attackers and their hostages remained holed up at the site and surrounded by Algerian forces as of late Wednesday. They are demanding a halt to Western “aggression” in Mali and for Algerian authorities to release 100 imprisoned Islamists and transfer them to northern Mali, the French wire service AFP reported. The militants have threatened to blow up the site if Algerian forces attack.

The crisis throws into sharp focus the risks that the United States could incur if it throws its support behind the French intervention to root out Islamists who have taken over the northern part of Mali following a destabilizing military coup last March.

Panetta on Monday said it was America's “responsibility” to help French forces in Mali, and House Republicans this week urged the president to give them whatever help they need, short of boots on the ground.

“When confronting a shared threat, we should have our ally’s back,” the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), said Tuesday.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said the hostage crisis confirms that the United States should deal with the militant groups "swiftly and effectively." He is holding a closed hearing on Mali next week.

“The kidnapping of Americans and other Westerners in Algeria brazenly raises the stakes in an already very volatile region," Rogers said in a statement. "Militant groups and terrorists with ties to AQIM [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] are becoming increasingly brash in their activities.

"The Obama administration needs to have a clear and focused policy on eliminating the threats that diverse al Qaeda-affiliated groups pose to the United States and to Americans working abroad off of the usual battlefields. Additionally, this administration needs to better understand the specific threats posed by AQIM and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups. If we don’t deal with these militant groups and terrorists swiftly and effectively, they will only pose an increasing threat in the future, as they already have in Benghazi and now Algeria and Mali,” Rogers said.

Wednesday's attack could, however, embolden administration critics who in the past have argued that European interventionists dragged the United States into the conflict as Libya descended into civil war in 2011.

Those critics died down after rebels routed Moammar Gadhafi, but they could resurface if the situation in the Sahel and southern Sahara continues to deteriorate.

Indeed, the Malian rebels who took over the northern part of the country last year did so with the help of Libyan weapons. And parts of Libya itself are now under the influence of Islamists — including those who killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September and continue to walk free.

“First of all, we were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack. There was no vital national interest,” Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE (R-Minn.) said during the Republican primary. “We to this day don’t yet know who the rebel forces are that we’re helping. There are some reports that they may contain al Qaeda of North Africa. What possible vital American interests could we have to empower al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya?”

In addition to the Americans, the groups are believed to be holding hostage citizens of Japan, Britain, Ireland and Norway. The U.S. Embassy in Algiers issued an emergency message to Americans in the country early in the day warning them to be on guard.

“As we always do in these circumstances, our embassy has issued an emergency message to U.S. citizens encouraging them to review their personal security,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at her daily briefing. “We're obviously taking the appropriate measures at the embassy as well.”

This story was updated at 9:55 a.m. Thursday.