The Obama administration is debating whether it can extend its counter-terrorism program to target newer al-Qaida offshoots, U.S. officials said.
The Authorization for Use of Military Force, a joint resolution passed by Congress three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror strikes against the United States, has been the legal bases for U.S. counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida, including drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen that have killed thousands of people.
However, U.S. officials said administration lawyers have become more concerned that the law is being stretched to its legal limit as new threats are emerging in countries such as Syria, Libya and Mali, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
"The farther we get away from 9/11 and what this legislation was initially focused upon," a senior administration official said, "we can see [not only] from both a theoretical but also a practical standpoint that groups that have arisen or morphed become more difficult to fit in."
The law's relevance is "requiring a whole policy and legal look," the official told the Post.
Federal courts have expanded the law to apply to "associated forces" of al-Qaida. Officials said legal advisers at the White House, the State and Defense departments and intelligence agencies now are debating whether the law can be expanded again to include "associates of associates," the Post said.
The debate was sparked by emergence of groups in North Africa and the Middle East that may have parts of al-Qaida's agenda but don't have meaningful ties to its leadership, the Post said. Among them are the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Ansar al-Sharia, which was tied to the Sept. 11 attack on a the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic employees died.
Administration officials said they could be forced to seek new legal protection if the president decides strikes are necessary against groups without direct links to al-Qaida. Some outside legal experts said that step is more than probable because the authorization is at the limit of its intended scope.
"You can't end the war if you keep adding people to the enemy who are not actually part of the original enemy," one participant in the administration's deliberations told the Post.