AQIM involved in Algeria attack, Pentagon claims

The Pentagon asserted on Tuesday that the terrorist organization al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was involved in the attack on an oil facility in Algeria, which so far has largely been attributed to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Algerian Islamic radical who was expelled from AQIM last year.

“There are strong indications that al Qaeda [in the Islamic Maghreb] had a hand in the attack on the oil facility in Algeria,” Pentagon press secretary George Little announced, on Tuesday.

The claim immediately raised questions to what extent the group was involved since Belmokhtar claimed responsibility in a video last week. It has been widely reported, however, that the AQIM shura kicked out Belmokhtar -- who is known as “The Uncatchable,” among other nicknames.

Little would not say why military or intelligence officials believe the wider terrorist network was involved.

“I’m not going to get into the information that we have that supports that conclusion. But AQ apparently had a role to play -- AQIM,” Little said, in the morning press gaggle in his E-Ring office.

“AQIM is not necessarily a monolithic group. There are different elements, so it’s important to bear that in mind,” Little argued, later.

Western officials are now eyeing Belmokhtar and his band of fighters, known as the Mulathameen brigade, which reportedly has broken off from al Qaeda. The terrorist-slash-smuggler who lost his eye, it is believed, in Afghanistan has become an instant global celebrity since the attack.

According to reports and public comments by Algerian officials, attackers from seven different countries drove in from Mali and across Algeria to the oil site near the Libyan border. The messy composition of the fighters and the fight has Pentagon officials now arguing that the growth of North African terrorism should be concern for more than Washington and Paris.

The assault -- and Algeria’s heavy-handed response that left dozens of hostages dead -- has raised questions about the Pentagon’s ability to get open North African countries to welcome American assistance. While the standoff was ongoing, last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did not criticize the Algerian assault on the facility, but said in London the U.S. would not let up their pursuit of any al Qaeda affiliates, leaning on Algeria and Mali to work with the West.

“Every one of these countries has their approach to dealing with terrorism,” Panetta said, on Saturday. “And I'm not going to make judgments about what's good or bad. What I care about is that they do everything they can to make sure that AQIM does not establish a base of operations in that area. That's what I care about.”

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images