US mulls how to strike over Benghazi attack

US mulls how to strike over Benghazi attack

US mulls how to strike over Benghazi attack

An armed man holds his rifle and stands next to buildings set on fire at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she takes the blame for any shortcomings in the handling of the attack. EPA photo

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 locate the al-Qaeda-linked group responsible for last month’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

But officials say the administration, with weeks until the presidential election, is weighing whether the short-term payoff of exacting retribution on al-Qaeda 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 too 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 three current and one former administration official, as well as an analyst who was approached by the White House for help, according to the Associated Press.

The dilemma shows the tension of the White House’s need to demonstrate it is responding forcefully to al-Qaeda, 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.

The attack has become an issue in the U.S. election season, with Republicans accusing the Barack Obama administration of being slow to label the assault an act of terrorism early on, and slow to strike back at those responsible. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she takes the blame for any shortcomings in the handling of the Benghazi attack, Agence France-Presse reported.

“I take responsibility,” she said, according to the news networks CNN and Fox, which interviewed her during a visit to the Peruvian capital Lima. “I’m in charge of the State Department, 60,000 plus people all over the world, 275 posts,” she said in a brief excerpt of the CNN interview, in which she absolved Obama from blame. “The president and the vice president certainly wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.”

On the subject of developing a special operations unit, U.S. officials received approval from Congress well before the Benghazi attack to re-allocate some funding in the budget that could be used for the commando program in Libya. But the details are still being discussed with the Libyans, and the move must obtain final approval from Congress, according to a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The initial cost is estimated at about $6.2 million.

Al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked the Benghazi consulate on Sept. 11, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, as well as three other U.S. diplomatic personnel.

Libyan commando forces

The defense official said U.S. leaders have recognized the need to train Libyan commando forces, but details such as the size, mission and the composition of the forces are still being finalized. A Washington-based analyst with extensive experience in Africa said administration officials had approached him asking for help in connecting the dots to Mali, whose northern half fell to al-Qaeda-linked militants this spring. They wanted to know if he could suggest potential targets, which he said he was not able to do.

The key suspects are members of the Libyan militia group Ansar al-Shariah. But U.S. investigators have only loosely linked “one or two names” to the attack, and they lack proof that it was planned ahead of time, or that the local fighters had any help from the larger al-Qaeda affiliate, officials said. If that proof is found, the White House must decide whether to ask Libyan security forces to arrest the suspects with an eye to extraditing them to the U.S. for trial, or to simply target the suspects with U.S. covert action.

“If the U.S. acts alone to target them in Africa, it raises all kinds of sovereignty issues ... and makes people very uncomfortable,” said Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Even a strike that happens with permission could prove problematic, especially in Libya or Mali where al-Qaeda supporters are currently based.