The White House has held a series of secret meetings in recent months to examine the threat posed by al-Qaida’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-Qaida’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-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
U.S. officials said the discussions have focused on ways to help regional militaries confront al-Qaida 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.
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-Qaida offshoots.