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WASHINGTON - The United States is struggling to confront an uptick in threats from the world's newest jihadist hot spot with limited intelligence and few partners to help as the Obama administration weighs how to keep Islamic extremists in North Africa from jeopardizing national security without launching war.
The spread of militants across Libya, Algeria and Mali - many are linked to al-Qaida - is in part a natural outgrowth for terror networks that have been pushed out of places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. But it also reflects a rise in local extremist movements that have been emboldened since the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
U.S. counterterror officials agree that extremists have almost no interest in attacking America at home. However, U.S. and Western interests in North Africa - primarily military bases, diplomatic missions and business facilities - and Americans traveling there are at increased risk.
Government intelligence and analysis gleaned from the region indicate that America's ability to contain, or respond to, threats from North Africa is harder than it was in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan because intelligence is not as well developed or available, a senior U.S. official said Thursday.
"We do not have the resources, footprint or capabilities that we have in other theaters," said the intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of releasing intelligence analysis. Moreover, the official said, "it's not clear we have a natural partner with whom we can work," meaning that African nations are unwilling or unable to help with counterterror measures.
Since the attack in Benghazi, North Africa has evolved as the Obama administration's latest national security headache, coming on top of conflicts across the Mideast through Asia. Many, if not all, of the extremists there are linked to al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb, which is rooted in Algeria. AQIM itself is affiliated with al-Qaida's core network, based in Pakistan and headed by Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian who took over after Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011.
None of the North African groups appear to receive direct orders from al-Zawahri or his lieutenants, and most are as motivated by asserting local authority through criminal activity as by anti-Western ideology.
U.S. intelligence officials believe some of the militants behind the Benghazi attack were linked to AQIM. Others within AQIM are suspected of driving overloaded trucks of rifles, mortars and other weapons from Libya to Mali and Niger to arm allies there.
"The stakes have gone up since Benghazi," said Mark Schroeder, an Africa analyst at the private global intelligence firm Stratfor. "It's a conflict zone now."
Algeria and Mali "are the two `moths to the flame' areas right now," the U.S. intelligence official said Thursday, citing rising concerns about allied extremist groups across North Africa who are sharing resources, manpower, expertise and information.
Islamic militants overran a BP gas plant in Algeria and lay siege with hostages for four days in January. National security forces launched a bloody counterattack, and Washington had to wait nearly a day before it could piece together what had happened. In all, 37 hostages - three were Americans - and 29 militants were killed.
Mali, where the U.S. has no diplomatic or military toehold with the government, is the most likely haven in Africa for militants plotting attacks. Islamic extremists have taken over much of Mali's north, although they were routed from major towns there within weeks of a French military mission that began Jan. 11. The U.S. has not dealt directly with Mali's government since a coup last March that put a junta leadership in power.
The Pentagon is considering plans to base unarmed spy drones in Niger to boost its ability to see what is happening in the region. But there is no appetite and little funding in the White House to send in U.S. troops beyond a military post already located in Djibouti, in East Africa, and limited special forces teams. A senior U.S. military official who deals with Africa issues said few nations there are willing to let U.S. forces work inside their borders for fear of having their sovereignty trampled.
American lawmakers said they are frustrated with the administration's apparent lack of focus on - or, at least, ability to anticipate and respond to - the burgeoning North African threat.
"Simply playing Whack-a-Mole with allegedly al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in one region to another around the world is not the answer," said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees Africa issues. "The answer is a better-crafted, thorough strategy that combines development, diplomacy, democracy and security."
Coons added: "You could say that there is no obvious or immediate threat to the American homeland from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but they did just succeed in killing three Americans in a hostage-taking in Algeria that had clearly been planned for some time."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, another Africa expert, put it bluntly: "If we don't engage, we run the risk of having another Afghanistan pop up one day in the form of North Africa."
White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration is "very worried" about the various extremist groups in North Africa but cited "varying degrees of ability and willingness" within governments there to fight them.
"There is a not a quick fix - these have to be a series of steps we take over the long term," Vietor said. "There is not a narrow military solution that can eradicate bad guys and then we are OK."
The U.S. is already helping fund, train and arm troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and other African nations to lead the fight against North African extremists. That would follow the model of international military aid to African forces that have fought and severely hobbled the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia since 2006. Al-Shabab is also loosely linked to al-Qaida.
Yet many North African nations are too consumed by local unrest and security issues to fight militants outside their borders. Nations that have undergone transfers in power over the last few years - most notably by Arab Spring revolutions - now find themselves with weaker counterterror abilities.
That has given al-Qaida and other extremists areas to exploit, one of the senior U.S. intelligence officials said.
"What we're seeing is that our enemy, al-Qaida, is showing remarkable adaptability," Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institute think-tank in Washington, told an audience this week. "They are adapting to a new environment, which is the Arab Spring, and taking advantage of it."