WASHINGTON, Oct 2: 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, US 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 US compounds in Libya, but gained urgency after the assaults there were linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

Officials in Washington said the discussions focused on ways to help regional militaries confront Al Qaeda, but also explored the possibility of direct US intervention if the group continues unchecked.

“Right now, we’re not in position to do much about it,” said a senior US counter-terrorism official involved in the talks. As a result, he added, 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 counter-terrorism adviser John O. Brennan and involves top officials from the CIA, State Department and Pentagon. At the same time, the US 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.

Gen Carter F. Ham, chief of US Africa Command, said on Friday during a visit to Morocco that there “are no plans for US direct military intervention” in Mali. But he and others have made clear that the United States is prepared to support counter-terrorism or peacekeeping operations by other countries.

In addition, the US 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 US activity reflects a reappraisal of a group long considered one of the weaker Al Qaeda offshoots. The 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 Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi 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 manoeuvre, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions,” Hillary 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”.

US officials said they were re-examining 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 US 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 a year for the United States to mount a full-scale campaign against the Yemen group, using armed drones operated by the US Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA. The United States has carried out 33 air strikes 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 counter-terrorism 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 US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, last month, US intelligence officials said they saw no indication the attacks were directed by the organisation.

“The AQIM has always been way more talk than action,” said a former senior US official who tracked the organisation 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 hade been made about deploying armed drones or other lethal assets. The nearest US 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.

By arrangement with Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service

Updated Oct 03, 2012 12:00am

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