By Barbara Starr
U.S. officials believe extremists across northern Africa, emboldened by the terror attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria, are growing more daring.
A senior American intelligence official tells CNN that "what we have seen is intelligence suggesting a desire to carry out more attacks" against western and U.S. interests in the region.
The United States is not aware of any specific threats, the official said.
But one of those believed to be plotting is Moktar Belmoktar, a veteran militant who has claimed responsibility for the attack this month on the BP facility in eastern Algeria that left at least 37 hostages dead.
READ: Algeria gas facility attack fuels jihadist rivalry
Threats are now coming from multiple Al Qaeda groups the region. U.S. military commanders have been warning of the threat from these elements in Africa for months.
"We're starting to see increasing collaboration, sharing of funding, sharing recruiting efforts, sharing of weapons and explosives, and certainly a sharing of ideology, that is expanding and connecting these various organizations, " said Gen. Carter Ham, commanding general of the U.S. Africa command.
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated to become the next defense secretary, already knows what he would face.
"I will ensure we stay vigilant and keep up the pressure on terrorist - keep up the pressure on terrorist organizations as they try to expand their affiliates around the world in places like Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa," he said on Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing.
But U.S. intelligence agencies may be of limited use to him when it comes to North Africa.
"We do not have the level of resources, the footprint or the capabilities we have in other theaters," the senior intelligence official said.
It's a broad acknowledgment that after more than a decade of focusing on Pakistan, Afghanistan and, in recent years, Yemen, the map has changed to include Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya and Egypt.
The Obama administration is struggling to catch up.
One key problem is the lack of capable and willing governments in North Africa to partner with for any U.S. operation, intelligence officials say.
Furthermore, military force is a difficult proposition for the U.S. because al Qaeda in Africa has no central headquarters, no Osama bin Laden-type leader, and it is increasingly spread out over thousands of miles of remote desert.
As a result, American intelligence agencies are now working with France whose own spy networks are more established in the former French colonies.
The United States will set up a drone base in Niger to fly over safe havens, hoping to catch terrorists before they fully establish themselves and begin to plot attacks against the U.S. homeland.