Militants with possible links to al Qaeda seized about 40 foreign hostages, including several Americans, at a natural-gas field in Algeria, posing a new level of threat to nations trying to blunt the growing influence of Islamist extremists in Africa.-->
WSJ Pentagon correspondent Julian Barnes joins The News Hub from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta 's press corps in Rome, where hours ago he declared the Algeria attack an act of terrorism. WSJ's Drew Hinshaw has the latest on the ground from Bamako, Mali. Photo: AP.
A French effort to drive Islamist militants from neighboring Mali that began with airstrikes last week expanded on Wednesday with the first sustained fighting on the ground. France's top target, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed responsibility for the Algeria kidnappings, calling it retaliation. The claim couldn't be verified, although AQIM has its origins in Algeria and operates across a swath of Africa.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would take "necessary and proper steps" in the hostage situation, and didn't rule out military action. He said the Algeria attack could represent a spillover from Mali.
U.S. officials have struggled for a year or more to devise a response to the many Islamist militant groups, some with ties to al Qaeda, across northern and western Africa.
"We have been concerned about Mali, because they would use it as a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria," Mr. Panetta said.
With intelligence reports "streaming in" on the Algeria siege, according to a senior intelligence official, some U.S. officials said confirming early suspicions that AQIM was involved was complicated by the group's loose structure.
The militants at the complex are believed to be headed by Mohktar Belmokhtar, a member of AQIM who has been a top target of the Algerian military for years, said Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who is now a counterterrorism fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In late 2012, Mr. Belmokhtar set up a group apart from AQIM, calling it al Mouthalimin, or Those Who Sign with Blood. If he is behind Wednesday's raid, it would suggest the commander continues to share the broader objective of the al Qaeda franchise.
Al Qaeda has rarely taken American hostages, however. If AQIM is involved, the operation represents a "big step up" for a group that has long been considered by the U.S. as a lesser terrorist threat than other al Qaeda branches, said Bruce Hoffman, an al Qaeda specialist and professor at Georgetown University.
"This obviously was planned for some time," he said. "The fact that they can flex their muscles like this and choose the timing shows they had the ability to take advantage of this opportunity."
There are a number of options for freeing the hostages, said Seth Jones, an al Qaeda specialist at Rand Corp., including ransom negotiations by BP, U.S. government negotiations and a U.S. military operation after significant intelligence collection on the site.
The U.S. has used special-operations forces in recent years in Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere when launching rescue operations to free hostages taken by militant groups. But none of the rescues has involved large numbers of hostages.
While Algeria may not be an easy destination for American forces, the U.S. military has been bulking up its presence in Africa. There are an estimated 2,000 U.S. personnel at Camp Lemonier, a joint U.S.-French base in Djibouti, that also serves as a base of operations for U.S. special-operations forces as well as Air Force drones that conduct lethal missions in Yemen.
The Algerian government is likely to resist an American-led military rescue, though they would probably accept U.S. intelligence support, said Mr. Riedel.
Algerians said the hostage crisis revived their deepest fear of seeing AQIM, a group whose main roots are in Algeria, spread from their strongholds in Mali to sow havoc in bordering nations.
"The minute the French military started pushing AQIM groups from the south of Mali, it was quite evident they would move north and into Algeria," said Adbelhamid Si Afif, a senior member of Algeria's pro-government party Front de Libération Nationale. "They have the power to shake up the entire region."
The militants, after raiding the energy complex, took positions inside living quarters there with a number of Algerian and foreign workers, the Algerian government said.
Algeria reported two deaths in Wednesday's raid, a Briton and an Algerian, but reports of the number of casualties and hostages varied widely.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 Norwegians were involved in the hostage situation. "This is one of the most serious hostage situations to affect Norwegian citizens" and companies, he said.
The U.K. confirmed that British citizens were being held. The French government said it couldn't confirm the presence of French nationals in the base.
BP said that contact with the site, named In Amenas, was extremely difficult. In Amenas harbors nearly 50 oil and natural-gas fields, linked to the northern coast through several pipelines.
Sonatrach didn't have any comment on the situation.
French military forces joined Malian troops on Friday in battling Islamist rebels in the West African nation, amid Western fears that insurgent groups with links to al Qaeda could destabilize the region and gain the ability to strike overseas.
French officials have said they feared the campaign could lead jihadist movements to target French and Western interests in retaliation. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said France's internal and external security services are "particularly vigilant" amid a "very strong and permanent," terrorist threat in France.
Algeria, which has traditionally championed a noninterventionist policy and had voiced reservations about any foreign military role in Mali, allowed French combat jets to fly through its airspace and said on Monday that it would close its southern border with Mali.
Analysts said they were skeptical that Algeria, although the strongest military force in the region, would succeed in sealing the border.
"It's possible to reinforce control on that border, but closing it is virtually impossible," said analyst Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a retired officer of the Algerian army.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers cited the attacks in Algeria as well as last year's attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya to press the Obama administration to step up its efforts against al Qaeda.
"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," said House intelligence committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.)