U.S. Considers Seeking Congressional Backing for Operations Against Extremists
WASHINGTON—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.
AQIM, originally known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, once resisted ties to al Qaeda. New leaders changed the name and embraced al Qaeda, but experts don’t believe it takes its directions. There are also other groups in Mali, such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which experts said have only indirect ties to the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.
The 2001 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force gave the U.S. military far-reaching authority to go after members of groups that attacked the U.S. and those who harbored them.
Initially, that pursuit was centered in Afghanistan. However, the war soon led U.S. military forces and their drones from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, prompting American action in Yemen and Somalia.
The Central Intelligence Agency, meanwhile, has carried out a lengthy campaign of armed drone strikes in Pakistan outside of the 2001 congressional measure. Instead, the CIA’s efforts are authorized by the president, who under law can order the CIA into action without congressional legislation.
Obama administration officials, concerned about the legal justifications behind counterterrorism operations, have preferred to rely on congressional authority for the use of force against al Qaeda, seeing such authority as more defensible and acceptable to allies.
Robert Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas law school, said some scholars believe it is sufficient for a regional militant group to announce it is joining al Qaeda to be covered under the 2001 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force. Other experts believe groups must actively take orders from al Qaeda’s central leadership to be covered.
“The uncertainties that have long surrounded the organizational boundaries of al Qaeda are growing more significant,” said Mr. Chesney. “We don’t have agreement regarding the litmus test showing when a given group has become sufficiently linked to al Qaeda so as to come within the scope of the authorization for the use of military force.”
Some experts believe that the current authorization of force against al Qaeda may lose legal force after the war in Afghanistan is declared over in 2014.
In a speech last week, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, also said there will come a “tipping point” at which al Qaeda is effectively destroyed, and the authorization may no longer be in force.
While some in the military welcome new legislation to clarify their powers and responsibilities in dealing with extremist groups, others are wary of the unpredictabilities of congressional action. Some Pentagon officials believe any new legislation considered by Congress would likely come with many restrictions on the military and its ability to capture, detain or release terrorist suspects.
“It is nearly impossible to get a clean request without riders that cloud the base issue,” said a military official.
With the U.S. recently ending the Iraq war and trying to exit Afghanistan, the prospect of new authorization for another conflict is a “monumental decision” and shouldn’t be done lightly, said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This is the kind of thing that Americans could end up regretting; we could end up in another decadelong war if this crazy idea isn’t stopped,” Mr. Anders said.
Some congressional aides said the role of the U.S. military in addressing growing threats in Africa is open to debate.
“You can make a plausible case that this threat is still in gestation and therefore we need to act now decisively to deal with it,” said a Senate aide. “You can make an equally plausible case that a lot of these groups are much more locally focused and not particularly impressive.”