WASHINGTON – The White House has put special operations strike forces on standby and moved drones into the skies above Africa, ready to strike militant targets from Libya to Mali – if investigators can find the al-Qaida-linked group responsible for the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya.
But officials say the administration, with weeks until the presidential election, is weighing whether the short-term payoff of exacting retribution on al-Qaida is worth the risk that such strikes could elevate the group’s profile in the region, alienate governments the U.S. needs to fight it in the future and do little to slow the growing terror threat in North Africa.
Details on the administration’s position and on its search for a possible target were provided by one former administration official and three current ones, as well as an analyst who was approached by the White House for help. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the debates publicly.
The dilemma shows the tension of the White House’s need to demonstrate it is responding forcefully to al-Qaida, balanced against its long-term plans to develop relationships and trust with local governments and build a permanent U.S. counterterrorist network in the region.
Vice President Joe Biden pledged in his debate last week with Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to find those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
The attack has become an issue in the U.S. election season, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of being slow to label the assault an act of terrorism early on, and slow to strike back at those responsible.
Pushing back against Republican criticism of the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took responsibility for security at the U.S. consulate in Libya, saying Monday in Lima, Peru, that security at all of America’s diplomatic missions abroad is her job, not that of the White House.
An analyst with extensive experience in Africa said that administration officials have approached him asking for help in connecting the dots to Mali, whose northern half fell to al-Qaida-linked rebels this spring. They wanted to know if he could suggest potential targets, which he says he was not able to do.
“The civilian side is looking into doing something, and is running into a lot of pushback from the military side,” the analyst said. “The resistance that is coming from the military side is because the military has both worked in the region and trained in the region. So they are more realistic.”
Islamists in the region are preparing for a reaction from the U.S.
“If America hits us, I promise you that we will multiply the Sept. 11 attack by 10,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for the Islamists in northern Mali, while denying that his group or al-Qaida fighters based in Mali played a role in the Benghazi attack.
The key suspects are members of the Libyan militia group Ansar al-Shariah. The group has denied responsibility, but eyewitnesses saw Ansar fighters at the consulate, and U.S. intelligence intercepted phone calls after the attack from Ansar fighters to leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, bragging about it. The affiliate’s leaders are known to be mostly in northern Mali, where they have seized a territory as large as Texas following a coup in the country’s capital.
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