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 C.I.A., 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 J. 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. But administration officials say no decisions have been made on any potential targets.
Spokesmen for the Defense Department and C.I.A. declined to comment.
The preparations underscore the bind confronting the White House over the Benghazi attack. Mr. 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 American military action on Libyan soil would risk casualties and almost certainly set off a popular backlash at a moment when gratitude for American support in the revolt against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has created a measure of appreciation for the United States in the region.
Reflecting a surge in nationalism, the Libyan government has opposed any unilateral American military action in Libya against the attackers. “We will not accept anyone entering inside Libya,” Mustafa Abu Shagur, Libya’s new prime minister, told the Al Jazeera television network. “That would infringe on sovereignty and we will refuse.”
At the same time, the Libyan government still depends almost entirely on autonomous local militias to act as the police, complicating any effort to detain the most obvious suspects. Libyan and American officials acknowledge the possibility that some of the perpetrators may have fled the country, perhaps across the porous southern border.
“It is a kind of hypocrisy really,” said Fathi Baja, a liberal former member of the Transitional National Council from Benghazi. Despite promises of swift retribution, he said, the government had not taken any steps to confront or interrogate those most widely believed to bear responsibility.
Both American counterterrorism officials and Benghazi residents are increasingly focused on the local militant group Ansar al Shariah as the main force behind the attack. Counterterrorism officials in Washington say they now believe that Ansar al Shariah had a rough attack plan for the American diplomatic mission “on the shelf” and ready for some time just in case, as one official put it. Then, the officials said, reports of the breach of the United States Embassy in Cairo, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks provided the impetus.
In the hours after the Benghazi attack, the American official said, spy agencies intercepted electronic communications from Ansar al Shariah fighters bragging to an operative with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian insurgency that has made itself a namesake of the global terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden. Another intercept captured cellphone conversations by militants on the grounds of the smoldering American Mission in Benghazi that suggested links to, or sympathies for, the regional Qaeda group.
In Benghazi, Ansar al Shariah’s role in the attack has been an open secret since it began. The group’s leaders had boasted of their ability to flatten the United States Mission compound. Witnesses saw trucks emblazoned with the logo of their brigade at the scene, fighters who assaulted the compound acknowledged their affiliation with the group and witnesses saw their faces. Some Libyan guards at the compound saw them close up, and injured attackers were then treated at local hospitals.
Although in the immediate aftermath of the attack Libyan officials issued conflicting and unverifiable reports about arrests, the Libyan government has never identified anyone detained, and in recent days officials have declined repeated requests to provide any details.
Members of the new national congress, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation, acknowledged with frustration on Tuesday that Ansar al Shariah members had not been questioned and remain at large.
Mustafa el-Sagizli, a senior official in the transitional government and an officer in one of Benghazi’s main militias, the February 17 Brigade, said the government had detained a few looters. But he said he did not believe anyone had been detained in connection with the attack itself.
“It was a mess,” he said, “and it was hard to tell who did it.”
Leaders of the large militias that provide the only law enforcement in Benghazi all say they are awaiting further evidence or formal orders before any move to round up or bring in members of Ansar al Shariah. Privately, militia leaders complain that detaining Ansar al Shariah’s leaders and fighters could require a bloody confrontation.
In an interview on Tuesday, Ibrahim el-Sharkasi, a top official of the Interior Ministry, said he had no knowledge of any detentions or interrogations. He insisted that a special judge had been appointed to lead the investigation. But he said he could not name the judge. And there have been no reports of such an appointment.
Investigators from the F.B.I., meanwhile, remain in Tripoli, working in concert with other American government agencies from the well-guarded residential compound now serving as the United States Embassy and unable to travel to Benghazi because of security concerns.
Moving ahead with a roster of potential targets, the military planners in Washington started by culling pre-existing lists of suspects that are continuously updated by the Joint Special Operations Command and the C.I.A.
American officials say that since the Benghazi attack, Special Operations planners have sharply increased their efforts to track the location and gather information on several members of Ansar al Shariah as well as other militants with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
It is unclear precisely how many of the target packages are being prepared – perhaps a dozen or more. But military and counterterrorism officials said that Libyan authorities had helped by at least identifying suspected assailants based on witness accounts, video and other photographs from the scene.
“They are putting together information on where these individuals live, who their family members and their associates are, and their entire pattern of life,” said one American official briefed on the planning.
Intelligence officials are focusing on militants in Benghazi and eastern Libya, but they must also survey elsewhere because of the possibility that some have fled. And to help prioritize which militants to watch, the Pentagon has stepped up its use of surveillance drones flying over eastern Libya, collecting electronic intercepts, imagery and other information that could help planners compile their target lists.
“You need to be constantly updating and refining the information on the top targets so that when you get approval, you’re absolutely ready to take action,” said Rick Nelson, a former Special Operations planner who directs the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Source: The NY Times