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Mission Creep in Libya: Drones in the Sky, Boots on the Ground

Reports show escalating US involvement following embassy assault in Benghazi

Common Dreams staff

FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu, Mali, as they prepare to publicly lash a member of the Islamic Police found guilty of adultery. The White House has put special operations strike forces on standby and moved drones into the skies above Africa, ready to strike militant targets from Libya to Mali — if investigators can find the al-Qaida-linked group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. (AP Photo, File)

During a nationally televised debate last week, Vice President Joe Biden responded to a question about the attack in Libya that led to the death of four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, by saying "the men responsible" would face "justice" from the United States.

"If you do harm to America," Biden threatened, "We will track you to the gates of hell if need be."

Now, the Associated Press reports—based on administration officials speaking under cover of anonymity—that armed US drones are flying over Libya and that US intelligence agencies are on the prowl for targets to strike.

According to AP:

If the administration does find a target, officials say it still has to weigh whether the short-term payoff of exacting retribution on al-Qaida is worth the risk that such strikes could elevate the group's profile in the region, alienate governments the U.S. needs to fight the group in the future and do little to slow the growing terror threat in North Africa.

And adds:

The White House is "aiming for a small pop, a flash in the pan, so as to be able to say, `Hey, we're doing something about it,'" said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rudy Attalah, the former Africa counter-terrorism director for Defense Department under President George W. Bush.

Attalah noted that in 1998, after the embassy bombing in Nairobi, the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles to take out a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that may have been producing chemical weapons for al-Qaida.


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"It was a way to say, `Look, we did something,'" he said.

The New York Times also revealed Tuesday that a previously unreported plan for the US military to train and arm a Libyan counter-terrorism strike force is moving forward after the Obama administration "quietly" received $8.2 million from Congress. The money was shifted from "Pentagon operations and counter-terrorism aid budgeted for Pakistan" and would be used to train about 500 elite Libyan troops.

American Special Operations forces would "conduct much of the training," the Times reports,
"as they have with counter-terrorism forces in Pakistan and Yemen, American officials said."

Also on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took responsibility for the attacks in Benghazi that have become a political issue in the presidential campaign."I take responsibility" for the protection of US diplomats, Clinton said during a visit to Peru, and promised that a full investigation now under way will help determine what happened in Benghazi the attack that left four Americans dead.

Clinton said President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are not involved in security decisions and that requests made for additional security at the embassy there were handled through the State Department. "I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha," she added, not naive to the political narrative back in the US or the proximity to the upcoming elections.

AP reports that the Islamist groups high on the American list of likely suspects for the embassy assault are already bracing for strikes. None have come forward to claim responsibility, but some have preemptively warned the US that attacks will be reciprocated with future violence.

"If America hits us, I promise you that we will multiply the Sept. 11 attack by 10," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for the Islamists in northern Mali.

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