WASHINGTON — Small teams of special operations forces arrived at American embassies throughout North Africa in the months before militants launched the fiery attack that killed the U.S. ambassador in Libya.
The soldiers' mission: Set up a network that could quickly strike a terrorist target or rescue a hostage.
The White House signed off a year ago on the plan to build the new military counter-terror task force in the region and the advance teams have been there for six months, according to three U.S. counter-terror officials and a former intelligence official. All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strategy publicly.
The effort indicates that the administration has been worried for some time about a growing threat posed by al-Qaida and its offshoots in North Africa.
But officials say the military organization was too new to respond to the attack in Benghazi, where the administration now believes armed al-Qaida-linked militants surrounded the lightly guarded U.S. compound, set it on fire and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Republicans have questioned whether the Obama administration has been hiding key information or hasn't known what happened in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
They are using those questions in the final weeks before the U.S. elections as an opportunity to assail President Barack Obama on foreign policy, an area where he has held clear leads in opinion polls since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
On Tuesday, leaders of a congressional committee said requests for added security at the consulate in Benghazi were repeatedly denied. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that security was increased for the anniversary of Sept. 11 and was adequate.
As of early September, the special operations teams still consisted only of liaison officers who were assigned to establish relationships with local governments and U.S. officials in the region. Only limited counter-terrorism operations have been conducted in Africa so far.
The White House, the CIA and U.S. Africa Command all declined to comment.
“There are no plans at this stage for unilateral U.S. military operations” in the region,
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday, adding that the focus was on helping African countries build their own forces.
For the Special Operations Command, spokesman Col. Tim Nye would not discuss “the missions and or locations of its counterterrorist forces” except to say that special operations troops are in 75 countries daily conducting missions.
The go-slow approach with the unit run by Delta Force — the Army's top clandestine counter-terrorist unit — is an effort by the White House to counter criticism from some U.S. lawmakers, human rights activists and others that the anti-terror fight is shifting largely to a secret war using special operations raids and drone strikes, with little public accountability.
The administration has been taking its time when setting up new covert operations to get buy-in from all players who might be affected, such as the ambassadors, the CIA station chiefs, regional U.S. military commanders and local leaders.
Eventually, the Delta Force group is to form the backbone of a military task force responsible for combating al-Qaida and other terrorist groups across the region with an arsenal that includes drones. But, first, it will work to win acceptance by helping North African nations build their own special operations and counter-terror units.
And nothing precludes the administration from using other military or intelligence units to retaliate against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 consulate attack in Benghazi.
But some congressional leaders say the administration is not reacting quickly enough.
“Clearly, they haven't moved fast enough to battle the threat,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
While Rogers would not comment on the special operations counter-terrorism network, he said, “You actually have to hunt them [terrorists] down. No swift action, and we will be the recipient of something equally bad happening to another diplomat.”
The Obama administration has been concerned about the growing power and influence of al-Qaida offshoots in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and North Africa. Only the Yemeni branch has tried to attack American territory directly so far, with a series of thwarted bomb plots aimed at U.S.-bound aircraft.
A Navy SEAL task force set up in 2009 has used a combination of raids and drone strikes to fight militants in Yemen and Somalia, working together with the CIA and local forces.
The new task force would work in much the same way to combat al-Qaida's North African affiliates, which are growing in numbers and are awash in weapons from post-revolutionary Libya's looted stockpiles. They are well-funded by a criminal network trafficking in drugs and hostages.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, and Nigerian-based extremist sect Boko Haram are arguably the two largest and most dangerous affiliates.
U.S. officials believe AQIM may have helped the local Libyan militant group Ansar al-Shariah carry out the Benghazi attack and Boko Haram has killed more than 240 people in an anti-Christian, anti-government campaign of assassinations and bombings this year alone. Both have morphed in recent years from extremist rebel groups that challenge their home governments into terrorist groups that use violence to try to impose extreme Islamic rule on any territory they can seize across Africa.
The governments of Libya and Niger have already asked for U.S. assistance to build their own special operations capability to help combat such al-Qaida-related groups and Nigeria has requested help to control its porous border to stop militant trafficking, according to two U.S. officials.
They, too, spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Mali has asked for international assistance to win back control of its northern region from al-Qaida groups including AQIM and Boko Haram, opening the possibility of a return of U.S. special operations forces there. A U.S. training unit was pulled out of the country after a March coup that gave the militants the chaos they needed to seize the northern territory.
The top State Department official for African affairs said Tuesday that the militants in Mali “must be dealt with through security and military means.”
“But any military action up there must indeed be well planned, well organized, well resourced and well thought through,” said the official, Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “And it must, in fact, be agreed upon by those who are going to be most affected by it.”
U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. Carter Ham said “a military component” would be a part of an overall solution in northern Mali but he ruled out an overt U.S. military presence, speaking to reporters during a visit to Algeria over the weekend.
Asked about the attack in Benghazi, Ham said it's the host country's responsibility to protect diplomatic missions on its territory.