Situation Report

Some Algerian hostages may have escaped; Mr. Marlboro behind the attack; Panetta, on the “(gun) nuts;” The Corps’ Frank McKenzie, leaning forward on the QDR; Ray Mabus to talk boats and budgets this afternoon, and more.

Some Algerian hostages may have escaped; Mr. Marlboro behind the attack; Panetta, on the “(gun) nuts;” The Corps’ Frank McKenzie, leaning forward on the QDR; Ray Mabus to talk boats and budgets this afternoon, and more.

As many as 25 hostages may have escaped from the In Amenas natural gas complex in Algeria. But reports do not indicate if any Americans are among them. ABC News, quoting intelligence officials, has reported that three of the hostages are Americans. The group of workers were taken yesterday in bold move by what appears to be the al Qaeda offshoot group in North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, apparently in response to recent French action against Islamic extremists in neighboring Mali. A U.S. "Commander’s in Extremis", stood up Oct. 1, in the wake of the attack in Libya, is on a four-hour alert status should it be asked to deploy to the region, CNN is reporting. Africom Commander Gen. Carter Ham is, naturally, the lead military officer in the matter.

Mr. Marlboro is also in command. The man behind the Algerian attack is a one-eyed jihadist named Mokhtar Belmokhar, whose success as a smuggler of cigarettes and diamonds earned him the nickname "Mr. Marlboro."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, traveling in Europe, on al Qaeda generally: "They are a threat. They’re a threat to our country. They’re a threat to the world. And, you know, wherever they locate and try to establish a base for operations, I think that constitutes a threat that all of us have to be concerned about."

Mike Rogers, the Republican congressman from Michigan who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Erin Burnett last night that he fears the U.S. doesn’t have a strategy for countering militant extremism in North Africa and that the situation there is threatening U.S. national security interests. Rogers, to Burnett: "What we don’t have is an overarching policy. This is what many of us have been talking about. Mali is the first victim of Libya because of the weapon caches raided and just about the inability to stop the weapons from flying all over and peopleSo, you had Tunisians coming down likely that had or involved in Benghazi and vice versa. Now, you have Algiers and Tuaregs — the Tuaregs are the tribes along the Mali-Algerian border primarily.?And you have all of this converging together makes it a very, very dangerous recipe. And that’s why you can’t just do — you can’t just handle Mali. You can’t just handle the Tuareg. You can’t just handle Benghazi. You have to have an overarching plan that puts pressure on these groups from all of it.?And you can’t just fire a few missiles and pack up and go home and hope for the best. It’s not going to work. This is a can of worms that’s open. We’re going to have to deal with it or it’s going to be a tribe or a safe haven like you see along the Afghan/Pakistan border." Transcript: http://bit.ly/101lqd9

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is still contemplating what additional assistance it will provide. Defense officials tell Situation Report this morning that they are still working out how the U.S. military will help the French in Mali — no change since yesterday. Ultimately, the Pentagon will airlift French troops and provide other logistical support. The U.S. has also assisted with intelligence assets.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report, where it’s clear the Obama administration will find it difficult to keep North Africa’s problems at a distance for much longer. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at gordon.lubold@foreignpolicy.com. And sign up for Situation Report here: http://bit.ly/NCN9uN or just drop me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list. And if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease.

Panetta is in Vicenza, Italy, soon on his way to London. In Italy, Panetta gave what was likely his final troop talk overseas, speaking to members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, we hear. Panetta spokes to members of the brigade and then had lunch with 10 enlisted soldiers. During a Q&A, Panetta defended President Barack Obama’s gun control package, saying: "Who the hell needs armor-piercing bullets except you guys in battle?… For the life of me, I don’t know why the hell people have to have assault weapons," AP quoted him as saying. To a question from a soldier on how to protect children from attacks such as the one in Connecticut last month, Walnut farm owner Panetta said things can be done "so that the nuts that are out there won’t use these kinds of weapons to wipe them out." AP report from Lita Baldor, traveling with the secretary: http://bit.ly/XgPkIK

On the 173rd: They’ve deployed five times since 9/11, including an airborne assault into Northern Iraq, as well as deployments to Afghanistan in 2006, 2008, and 2010, we’re told. They are currently deployed to Afghanistan’s Logar and Wardak provinces. More than 60 soldiers are returning home from Afghanistan on Saturday. Eighty-four soldiers have been killed in action since 9/11, including 13 on the current deployment. Sgt. Sal Giunta served in this brigade during the firefight in which he earned the Medal of Honor.

From the plane at 8:38 a.m. EST: "Wheels up for London at any minute."

Ray Mabus will speak today at the Surface Navy Association about people, platforms, power, and partnerships, Situation Report is told. Mabus is expected to focus on the Continuing Resolution and sequestration, both of which Navy officials believe drastically diminish the service’s ability to manage shipbuilding, maintenance, and operations in general. Mabus will talk about the size of the fleet, which declined from a high of 316 ships in 2001, to 278 four years ago, and is now growing. The size of the Navy’s fleet should top 300 by the end of the decade, if the services are given the flexibility to manage the growth, we’re told. But as service officials have told us time and again, it is nearly impossible for them to manage capital investment accounts under the fiscal uncertainty that has become business-as-usual.

Last day of three-day conference, in Crystal City near the Pentagon. SNA info here: http://bit.ly/UN9jyt

The Marines have begun thinking about the QDR. The imminent Quadrennial Defense Review is causing some trepidation because it defines the roles, missions, and resources for each service. The services haven’t received their marching orders for the QDR yet, but if Chuck Hagel is confirmed, each will soon get guidance about how to approach the review — since it’s due in early 2014 and is expected to result in a significant set of blueprints that will lay the ground for the way the services and the department as a whole march forward for the next many years.

This time around, the QDR is particularly scary, since there is so much budget uncertainty and everyone is eager to secure their piece of a shrinking pie. But Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie, Jr., the two-star in charge of the USMC’s effort, told Situation Report in a recent interview, "The Marine Corps’ view is we welcome the QDR, we think we have a good story to tell."

Thanks, Asia pivot. The Duffel Blog joked in the last few weeks about how Marine Commandant Jim Amos wants the Syrian rebels to move their fighting to the Pacific because it could help the Marines get back to their naval roots. But many a truth in jest. The pivot to Asia is a happy backdrop for the Marines as the service stakes out its territory and, like all services, uses the QDR to essentially codify it. The Corps’ transition from a "war-time force" of about 202,000 Marines to a smaller force — soon to be about 182,100 — marks an inflection point for the service.

McKenzie believes this could be a "significant QDR" because of the budgetary pressures facing the services, the pivot and the drawing down of forces in Afghanistan. "There are a lot of things on the table that make you look and think this could be a significant QDR," he told us. In the coming weeks, the services will receive their "terms of reference" from the Pentagon leadership about how to go about the review, which is based on the national security strategy released a year ago. Although the fiscal environment has changed, even dramatically, one could argue, since then, it’s likely the QDR will reflect the current thinking on national security strategy. "We might want to look at the risks, some of the assumptions, some of the means of execution of that strategy, but the basic strategy is good," McKenzie said. The shift to the Pacific is good for the Marines, who are proud of a lot of their "old ties" to that region.

McKenzie on the Marines’ argument: "I think what we will have to do is we will have to articulate the usefulness of Marines as a forward-deployed force that can provide an immediate crisis response capability and by that I mean this afternoon, not next week, not next month, but this afternoon. In order to do that, you’ve got to be there, there is no substitute for it. You can’t virtually do it, you have to physically do it. You actually have to be there. That kind of argument is going to be the core when we justify ourselves." Pentagon’s QDR page: http://1.usa.gov/btNRFr

McKenzie talks QDR at Stimson next week. A discussion with CSIS’s Maren Leed and CATO’s Benjamin Friedman, moderated by Stimson’s own Russell Rumbaugh, takes place after. The event is at Stimson between 2:30 and 4 p.m. on Jan. 22.

Feels like the Iraq invasion all over again. Preparation for the invasion of Iraq, as many embedded reporters remember, included scary looking gas masks and weird shots and talking about things that felt uncomfortable. In preparation for — something — the Obama administration has "quietly arranged" for thousands of chemical protective suits and other gear to be sent to Jordan and Turkey, according to a new piece on FP, "Suiting Up," by R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity. Smith: "As part of their preparations for such an event, Western governments have started training the Jordanians and Turks to use the chemical gear and detection equipment so they have the capability to protect the Syrian nerve agent depots if needed — at least for a short time, U.S. and Western officials say. Washington has decided, moreover, that the best course of action in the aftermath of Assad’s fall would be to get the nerve agents out of the country as quickly as possible, and so it has begun discussions not only with Jordan and Turkey, but also with Iraq and Russia in an effort to chart the potential withdrawal of the arsenal and its destruction elsewhere." http://atfp.co/11BrMW3

Meanwhile, GlobalSecurity.org’s John Pike tells Situation Report he’s not sure what Syria may or may not have used in the city of Homs on Dec. 23, but he doesn’t think it’s "bug spray for people." FP’s report this week about the possibility that the Assad regime may have used a chemical weapon on Syrians in Homs received wide attention and rightly so. But the administration continued to throw water on the report, saying media reports were "inconsistent" with what they knew to be true. But the report may well be right – it’s just a question of what kind of chemicals we’re talking about here. Pike tells Situation Report that it’s possible that a tear gas- like agent was used and that the conditions in which the chemical was used would dictate its effectiveness. In this case, it probably wasn’t a top-shelf chemical agent.

"There is a fundamental difference between tear gas and poison gas," he said. "The Syrians are known to have a mustard agent, which is a blister gas, which produces very painful wounds and can be lethal; and they’re known to produce nerve gas, which is promptly lethal," he said. "It’s bug spray for people."

Ultimately, the international community will be concerned about removing the nerve gas from Syria once the Assad regime falls, which Pike says has the potential to kill as many people in a day as have died in the last two years in Syria.

Noting