Special operations command is preparing to strike ambassador's killers.
WASHINGTON - The United States is laying the groundwork for operations to kill or capture militants implicated in the deadly attack on a diplomatic mission in Libya, senior military and counter-terrorism officials said on Tuesday, as the weak Libyan government appears unable to arrest or even question fighters involved in the assault.
The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects, the officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the CIA, the command is preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the attack on a diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three colleagues three weeks ago.
Potential military options could include drone strikes, special operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden and joint missions with Libyan authorities.
The preparations underscore the bind confronting the White House over the Benghazi attack. Obama has vowed to bring the killers to justice, and in the final weeks of the presidential campaign Republicans have hammered the administration over the possible intelligence failures that preceded the attack -- including a new accusation that repeated requests for strengthened security in Benghazi had been rejected.
But any U.S. military action on Libyan soil would risk casualties and almost certainly set off a popular backlash at a moment when gratitude for U.S. support in the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi has created a measure of appreciation for the U.S. in the region.
At the same time, the Libyan government has presented a further issue by opposing any unilateral U.S. military action in Libya to apprehend the attackers. "We will not accept anyone entering inside Libya," Mustafa Abu Shagur, Libya's prime minister, told the Al-Jazeera television network.
The Libyan government still depends on autonomous local militia to act as its police, complicating any effort to detain the most obvious suspects and leaving open the possibility that in the three weeks since the attack they might have fled the country.
"It is a kind of hypocrisy really," said Fathi Baja, a liberal former member of the Transitional National Council from Benghazi, noting that despite promises of swift retribution, the government has not taken any steps to confront or interrogate those most widely believed to bear responsibility.
'On the shelf'
Both U.S. counter-terrorism officials and Benghazi residents are increasingly focused on the local militant group Ansar al-Shariah as the main force behind the attack. Counter-terrorism officials in Washington say they now believe that Ansar al-Shariah had a rough attack plan for the U.S. diplomatic mission "on the shelf" and ready for some time just in case.
Then, a U.S. official said, reports of the breach of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, provided the impetus to put the Benghazi attack in motion.
In the hours after the Benghazi attack, the U.S. official said, spy agencies intercepted electronic communications from Ansar al-Shariah fighters bragging to an operative with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian insurgency that has made itself a namesake of the global terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden.
In Benghazi, Ansar al-Shariah's role in the attack has been an open secret since the evening it began.