Ansar Dine, one of several rebel groups fighting against French and African forces in Mali, was designated a foreign terrorist organization Thursday by the State Department, which cited its close cooperation with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa.
The designation highlighted growing U.S. counterterrorism concerns in Africa, where the Obama administration is providing logistical, intelligence and other support to French forces seeking to drive out insurgents and protect a civilian Malian government. Last month, a new U.S. drone base was established in Niger, Mali’s neighbor to the east.
The listing freezes the Malian group’s assets and bars American citizens from any dealings with it. But by outlining Ansar Dine’s ties and funding from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the administration potentially broadened its ability to take direct action against the group.
Obama hesitated in January before lending logistical and intelligence support to the French effort, because legal authorities restrict lethal U.S. counterterrorism efforts overseas to combating al-Qaeda and its associates.
The administration has not said it plans to expand its use of drones for targeted killings beyond current CIA and military campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and al-Qaeda associates in Yemen and Somalia. But the new designations potentially allows the administration to do so under its interpretation of the Authorization of the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Lawmakers have raised concerns about that interpretation and questioned whether the law should be rewritten to reflect a changing terrorist threat and increase congressional oversight and involvement in the administration’s drone campaign.
“I really do think this entire authorization needs to be updated,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said at a hearing Wednesday.
The AUMF gives the president wide authority to use military force against those who committed or assisted the 2001 attacks. At the Senate hearing, former senior counterterrorism officials questioned the administration’s use of the act to cover drone strikes against a broader range of terrorism targets.
“In my view, the current AUMF is too broad because . . . we’re now 12 years later and . . . a lot of people when they voted for it didn’t quite realize that it would still be applying,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “It’s too narrow because . . . you would have to do some shoehorning to get some groups or individuals in there.”
The law also is too vague, Leiter said, because it’s difficult to use it to apply to a group such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamic extremist group in Syria that the Obama administration designated last month as a terrorist group and a wholly owned subsidiary of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday he would hold a hearing next month to examine the administration’s authority for targeted killings. “There are unanswered questions about that authorization,” Durbin said at a meeting with reporters sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.
Among the questions, he said, are: “Where can we use drones as a lethal weapon? Against whom? What are the checks and balances of the system? Is this a wide-open opportunity for any president to use lethal force anywhere against anyone?”
A Durbin spokesman said that Obama had invited congressional involvement in an interview last fall with “The Daily Show,” when he said that “one of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need congressional help to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president is reined in in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.”