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US War on Terror Feature: Preparing for Military Operations in Africa (Barnes/Perez)

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presses Algeria to join intervention in Mali, 29 October 2012

Julian E. Barnes and Evan Perez write for the Wall Street Journal:

Military counterterrorism officials are seeking more capability to pursue extremist groups in Africa and elsewhere that they believe threaten the U.S., and the Obama administration is considering asking Congress to approve expanded authority to do it.

The move, according to administration and congressional officials, would be aimed at allowing U.S. military operations in Mali, Nigeria, Libya and possibly other countries where militants have loose or nonexistent ties to al Qaeda's Pakistan headquarters. Depending on the request, congressional authorization could cover the use of armed drones and special operations teams across a region larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, the officials said.

The idea comes as the U.S. prepares by 2014 to draw down its remaining forces in Afghanistan, which were authorized by Congress in response to the country serving as base for the al Qaeda plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. That authorization has since been applied to pursuing al Qaeda-linked groups as far as Somalia and Yemen, but the threat posed by militants has widened to include other areas and other alliances.

The discussion about seeking new authority underscores the growing U.S. alarm over Islamic extremists in North Africa, where an al Qaeda offshoot has seized control of territory following a coup in Mali to provide the group and its offshoots a working base for operations. The U.S. administration has called the Mali situation a "powder keg" that could destabilize surrounding countries and imperil Western interests.

"The conditions today are vastly different than they were previously," Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa command, said in an interview. "There are now non-al Qaeda-associated groups that present significant threats to the United States." He called the debate over new authorization a "worthy discussion."

Some U.S. officials argue that the existing authority is sufficient, especially if the administration works through African forces and regional governments—as it says it would prefer. But others say new authority is needed if officials decide they need to do more to pressure militant groups.

The debate is going on both within the administration and the Pentagon, where officials remain divided over whether more direct action against militant groups in Africa will be needed.

Obama administration officials emphasized that their approach is still being reviewed. "Everyone is committed to taking on violent extremism in Africa, there is a healthy debate in the administration about how best to counter the threat in the region," an official said.

The terrorist offshoot known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is the biggest single concern. Gen. Ham said that AQIM, which originated in Algeria, has a sophisticated recruiting effort in both sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, and ambitions to attack the West. Fighters from AQIM have been linked to the Sept. 11 assault this year on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, but the nature of the alleged involvement remains unclear.

"It is clear to me they aspire to conduct events more broadly across the region, and eventually to the United States," Gen. Ham said. "That is the ideology, that is the campaign plan, establish the caliphate and spread the ideology, attack Western interests, attack democratic forms of government, and we are certainly seeing that." U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 assault.

U.S. officials have offered logistical help for West African countries forming plans for an intervention force in Mali. Such U.S. assistance would not likely require a broader authorization for the use of force. "It's not simply a question of U.S. direct action. There's a preference in many of these instances for regional action," another administration official said.

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