WASHINGTON/ BERLIN: U.S. officials said Tuesday the deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya has prompted a renewed focus on the threat posed by Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, suspected of possible links to last month’s assault.
Precisely who was behind the Sept. 11 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff remains under investigation but Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is now under intense scrutiny given its possible role in the incident, two officials said.
“Obviously there’s a spike of interest in AQIM since the attack,” an administration official told AFP.
The U.S. government’s probe of the assault is “looking at extremist groups in the Benghazi area as well as AQIM,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It doesn’t appear at this point that there was a highly organized command and control structure but it was nonetheless a relatively complex attack,” the official said.
The Al-Qaeda franchise called on Muslims to storm other U.S. embassies in North Africa and kill American envoys days after the assault on the Benghazi mission, in which gunmen kept security teams at bay for hours and fired rocket-propelled grenades.
In the past, U.S. spy agencies have portrayed AQIM as a lesser threat than some other branches of Al-Qaeda, with the group not yet able to carry out plots on targets overseas like its counterparts in Yemen or Pakistan.
But U.S. officials have been concerned that the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Libya created more room for extremists like AQIM to operate, while also freeing up weapons.
“It’s definitely getting more attention,” said a second U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Just the possibility that AQIM may have played a role in the Benghazi attack has concentrated the spotlight on the outfit, the official added.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the U.S. may expand its campaign of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda to target the desert bases of AQIM.
A spokesman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council would not confirm details of an internal debate among the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon.
But NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told AFP: “The president has been clear about his goal to destroy Al-Qaeda’s network and we work toward that goal every day.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the White House holds meetings on a variety of subjects, including a number of counterterrorism issues.”
A Pentagon official confirmed to AFP that discussion of Al-Qaeda’s North African wing had gained greater urgency since the deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya and after having seized large swaths of Mali.
Unmanned planes – some operated secretly by the CIA, some by the military – already carry out near daily strikes against alleged extremists operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, told journalists Monday that the U.S. would be open to supporting a “well planned” and “well resourced” African-led force to help oust Islamist rebels in northern Mali.
Also Tuesday, a senior U.S. Treasury official said Islamist militants are increasingly funding themselves through kidnapping.