The Islamists Strike

American hostages taken in Algeria by Qaeda affiliate as Middle East tumult spreads

An armed libyan man flashes the victory sign in front of a fire at the hardline Islamist group Ansar el-Sharia headquarters on Sept. 21, 2012 in Benghazi. (Getty)

United States officials confirmed Wednesday that Americans have been taken hostage following a terrorist attack on a British Petroleum gas field site in Algeria.

"We condemn in strongest terms the terrorist attack on British Petroleum personnel and facilities at the In Amenas Algeria earlier today," spokesperson Victoria Nuland said at a Wednesday State Department press briefing.

Citing safety concerns, Nuland did not specify the identities of the Americans or the number of hostages taken. Reuters reported Wednesday that an al Qaeda-affiliated group claims to have kidnapped 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also confirmed the hostage situation and labeled the event a "terrorist attack."

Panetta said "all necessary and proper steps" will be taken regarding the Algerian attack.

Some have speculated the attack was in response to French military action against Islamic extremists in Mali. U.S. forces are providing the French intelligence support; Panetta said Tuesday there is no consideration of putting U.S. troops on the ground.

The Algeria terrorist attack comes as the United States is addressing a number of hot spots in the region.

U.S. government officials this week have condemned comments made in 2010 by now Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that included anti-Semitic slurs and a call to "nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred" for Jews.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday the administration has confronted the Egyptian government about the remarks.

"We strongly condemn the remarks that then Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi made in 2010," Carney said at a Tuesday press briefing. "The language that we have seen is deeply offensive. We completely reject these statements, as we do any language that espouses religious hate … This kind of discourse has been acceptable in the region for far too long."

A delegation of U.S. officials met Wednesday with Morsi in Egypt.

"He responded that he is not someone who harbors hatred or ill feeling toward Judaism or the Jewish people," Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) said of the meeting. "But I really think the burden is on him to further explain and to put into context not just his statements but also his actions."

"Obviously, his statements and our grave concerns about them were at the outset of the meeting," Coons went on to say. "His responses were satisfactory enough that we then went on to talk about some of the other vital regional specific issues."

Foreign Policy report published Tuesday indicated Syrian authorities had used hallucinogenic chemical weapons against rebels. That information originated in a State Department cable.

State said Wednesday they do not believe chemical weapons were used.

"At the time we looked into the incident, and we found no credible evidence that chemical weapons were used," Nuland said Wednesday.

The events come on the heels of a turbulent 2012 in the region for American interests. Islamists carried out a terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, leaving four Americans dead. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton will testify on that attack later this month.

A number of U.S. Embassies, however, were the site of massive and at times violent protests that day—including the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where demonstrators removed the American flag and replaced with it a black Islamist flag.