On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Obama administration would pursue AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in North Africa, in an effort to ensure that the international terror network has no place to hide.
Panetta mentioned during a CNN interview that, while the U.S. went after al-Qaeda’s leadership in the Afghan Fatah and its branches in Yemen, and Somalia, it always remained aware of AQIM’s existence in North Africa. He further stressed that the Obama administration is currently focused on "AQIM as a result, obviously of the French action. But we were also anticipating that we would have to move into North Africa to go after al Qaeda." Panetta further asserted that he would not "rule out any action the President of the US might decide needs to be taken against any crisis. I just would not rule out any option in today’s world."
Panetta’s statements come after, last Thursday, U.S. senior intelligence officials announced that, according to intelligence on AQIM, which was previously regarded as one of the terrorist network’s weakest links, suggests that the group is preparing further attacks on Western targets in the region, after the assault at a natural gas complex in Algeria, partly operated by BP and situated near the border with Libya. During the assault, three American workers were among the hostages that were subsequently killed.
AQIM had gained control over several key cities in Mali before being pushed back by French forces over the past week, which led to the retaliation at the Algerian gas installation.
One of the officials emphasized that there was no current evidence of a specific plot to be carried out, but that AQIM's planning remains broad.
Nevertheless, the officials emphasized that, although focusing mainly on Western targets, AQIM will likely remain a region threat, as they lack the capacity to organize attacks on U.S. territory. They also recognized that their understanding of the Algerian attack and of North African militant groups is hindered by a lack of U.S. intelligence sources in the region and of cooperation from certain governments, such as Algeria.