The kidnapping of several U.S. citizens in Algeria on Wednesday was clearly a "terrorist attack" by al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups in the region, in possible retaliation for the ongoing French counterterrorism offensive in West Africa, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The Americans were among the nearly 400 hostages taken after gunmen stormed a BP-operated oil field located near Algeria's border with Libya. Members of Islamic militant "Masked Brigade" and the "Signers in Blood," claimed responsibility for the raid.
Panetta, who is in Italy as part of a week-long goodwill tour through Western Europe, said he has been in contact with his counterparts in Algeria after being briefed on the oil field attack on Wednesday.
“It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others,” Panetta told reporters in Rome on Wednesday.
“I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation," he added, declining to go into detail as to what those steps would include.
Most recently, the White House authorized a hostage rescue mission last December to free Dilip Joseph, an American doctor who had been captured by Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan.
While the mission was successful, a member of the Navy's vaunted SEAL Team Six was killed during the operation.
As the White House and DOD mulls over possible responses, the groups involved in the attack claim it was in response to American support for the French-led campaign to drive the group's West African cell — known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) — from its safe havens in neighboring Mali.
The Pentagon has agreed to provide intelligence and military logistical support to Paris to aid the French attempt to sweep members of al Qaeda’s West African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, from northern Mali.
French warplanes have been pounding al Qaeda positions inside northern Mali since Sunday, with the help of intelligence and military logistics support provided by the Pentagon.
On Monday, Panetta told reporters in Spain that it was Washington’s “responsibility” to back the French offensive in Africa.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon chief declined to comment specifically on whether the Algeria attack was in direct response to France's aerial campaign in Mali, but did note the attack bore all the hallmarks of a terrorist operation.
“I do know that terrorists are terrorists and terrorists take these kinds of actions,” he added. “We’ve witnessed their behavior in a number of occasions where they have total disregard for innocent men and women. This appears to be that kind of situation.”
Weeks before the attack, Washington and Algiers had reportedly been working a deal to allow American intelligence assets to operate in Algerian airspace, in an attempt to monitor the situation in northern Mali.
Under the terms of the proposal, Washington would provide the satellites to military and intelligence officials in Algeria to track AQIM fighters in West Africa, according to recent reports.
Algeria has so far been reluctant to allow American intelligence and counterterrorism officials operate in and around its territory.
Algiers has repeatedly denied U.S. requests to allow American drones based in Morocco and the West African nation of Burkina Faso to fly through Algerian airspace and into Mali to track AQIM forces there.
It remains unclear whether Wednesday's attack was also an attempt to scuttle that intelligence-sharing deal and ultimately deny the U.S. access with a key strategic ally on the continent.