The White House has held a series of secret meetings in recent months to examine the threat posed by al-Qaeda’s franchise in North Africa and consider for the first time whether to prepare for unilateral strikes, U.S. officials said.
The deliberations reflect concern that al-Qaeda’s African affiliate has become more dangerous since gaining control of large pockets of territory in Mali and acquiring weapons from post-revolution Libya. The discussions predate the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. compounds in Libya but gained urgency after the assaults there were linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
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.”
U.S. officials said they are reexamining AQIM’s potential in part to avoid earlier mistakes underestimating an al-Qaeda franchise based in Yemen.
The question looming over the White House discussions, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, is: “Do you see AQIM being in the same place AQAP was five years ago?”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based affiliate is known, was similarly discounted as a regional menace until it was linked to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas in 2009.
It took more than year for the United States to mount a full-scale campaign against the Yemen group, using armed drones operated by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA. The United States has carried out 33 airstrikes in Yemen this year, according to independent estimates. Even so, AQAP has continued to attempt attacks, including an airline bomb plot disrupted earlier this year.
Some counterterrorism experts voiced concern that the administration is inflating the threat posed by al-Qaeda in North Africa. Although a small number of AQIM fighters were involved in the siege of U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, last month, U.S. intelligence officials said they see no indication the attacks were directed by the organization.
“AQIM has always been way more talk than action,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who tracked the organization until earlier this year. The group was for years known among analysts as “the most underperforming affiliate of al-Qaeda.”
Officials stressed that no decisions have been made about deploying armed drones or other lethal assets. The nearest U.S. drone base in Africa is across the continent in Ethiopia, and administration officials said they would consider unilateral strikes only as a last resort.
For now, the officials said, the emphasis is on replicating aspects of the counterterrorism formula in Somalia. The United States has conducted intelligence operations there, as well as strikes, but has mainly relied on African troops to battle an al-Qaeda-linked militant group known as al-Shabab.
Ham, the U.S. commander in Africa, has said that in Mali, that task has been made more difficult by political instability and the failure to act earlier. The United States, the Malian government and other countries “missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak,” Ham told reporters during a visit to Senegal in July.
He called AQIM the “best-funded, wealthiest” affiliate, thanks to its lucrative practice of kidnapping foreigners for ransom and its smuggling prowess.
The Pentagon has been prohibited from giving military aid or training to Mali in the aftermath of the March coup. The ban, imposed by the State Department, is unlikely to be lifted until a democratically elected government can be reinstated.
In the meantime, the administration has been stepping up its military aid to Mali’s neighbors, including two that have been dealing with refugees and other spillover effects from the conflict there.
In July, the Defense Department allocated $6.9 million worth of military trucks, uniforms and communications gear for Mauritania. It also agreed to give Niger $11.6 mllion in equipment, primarily in the form of two Cessna airplanes that can be used for surveillance and to transport troops.
That same month, about 600 U.S. troops organized and led a joint military exercise, dubbed Western Accord 2012, with several West African nations, including Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Gambia. French troops also participated.
The Africa Command has continued to operate surveillance flights — under a classified program code-named Creek Sand – from a U.S. Special Operations forces base in Burkina Faso.
Senior U.S. officials said there was no American involvement in a reported June airstrike in northern Mali and that they still don’t know whether it occurred. Regional news organizations described a “mystery airstrike” that killed seven AQIM-aligned fighters traveling in a convoy of four vehicles.
Mali’s interim government has said that it would welcome a proposed peacekeeping force of about 3,300 troops from a 15-nation consortium known as the Economic Community of West African States.