U.S. officials said the discussions have focused on ways to help regional militaries confront al-Qaeda but have also explored the possibility of direct U.S. intervention if the terrorist group continues unchecked.
“Right now, we’re not in position to do much about it,” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the talks. As a result, he said, officials have begun to consider contingencies, including the question of “do we or don’t we” deploy drones.
The effort has been led by White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan and involves top officials from the CIA, State Department and Pentagon. At the same time, the U.S. military commander for Africa has crisscrossed the region in recent weeks, making stops in Mauritania, Algeria and other countries that could become part of a peacekeeping force for Mali.
White House officials declined to comment.
Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, chief of U.S. Africa Command, said Friday during a visit to Morocco that there “are no plans for U.S. direct military intervention” in Mali. But he and others have made clear that the United States is prepared to support counterterrorism or peacekeeping operations by other countries.
In addition, the U.S. military has launched a series of clandestine intelligence missions, including the use of civilian aircraft to conduct surveillance flights and monitor communications over the Sahara Desert and the arid region to the south, known as the Sahel.
The burst of U.S. activity reflects a reappraisal of a terrorist group long considered one of the weaker al-Qaeda offshoots. AQIM grew out of an insurgency in Algeria. It has been known mainly as a local scourge, using kidnappings and other crimes to support its effort to impose Islamist rule.
That perception has changed in the past year, largely because of the group’s ability to exploit regional political chaos. A coup in Mali divided the landlocked country, enabling AQIM and other insurgent movements to take control of cities in the northern part of the country, including Gao and Timbuktu.
At the same time, the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in Libya triggered a migration of African mercenaries and their weapons back to countries where al-Qaeda elements are based. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the trend lines in stark terms at the United Nations last week.
With “increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions,” Clinton said. She said the United States was “stepping up our counterterrorism efforts” to combat what she described as “a threat to the entire region and to the world.”