Expert: Islamists "taunting" U.S. in Algeria, Mali

Rudolph Atallah
Rudolph Atallah
CBS News

(CBS News) The last time Americans were killed by terrorists was in North Africa. Four died in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The French are fighting Islamic terrorists in Mali, a former colony of theirs. The U.S. is now offering some help.

The U.S. has agreed to airlift a battalion of French troops and tanks into Mali, part of a military intervention which has stirred up a hornets' nest of al-Qaeda linked groups in North Africa.

According to U.S. intelligence, these groups are likely to strike Western targets again.

Rudolph Atallah
Rudolph Atallah CBS News

Rudolph Atallah, the Pentagon's former head of counterterrorism for Africa, said this does not come out of nowhere.

"These guys are savvy," Atallah said. "They've been prepared for a fight, like I said, for a long time, and they are not going to take it lying down. They are going to show that they are capable of putting some pain against the West."

The attack on the gas complex in Algeria was carried out by a group whose leader had warned France against intervening in Mali. Other leaders operating under the umbrella of a group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have dared the U.S. to intervene.

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"One of the Islamists was taunting the United States, essentially saying: 'We want the United States to be involved in the fight, like the French.' It's more like: 'Bring it. We're ready for you. So we're prepared to go after you,'" Atallah said.

With U.S. backing, the French launched air strikes and began sending in troops last week when it appeared radical Islamic groups which already control the northern half of Mali were on the verge of breaking through government defenses across the narrow waist of the country and advancing on the capitol.

France's defense minister said the operation was designed to prevent Mali from becoming a terrorist state within range of Europe. Even if France succeeds in stopping the advance, radical Islamic groups will still control northern Mali, an area the size of France itself.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said there are no plans to put U.S. troops into Mali, but that could change if terrorists there start killing Americans.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.