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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.

But the teams had yet to do much counterterrorism work in Libya, though the White House signed off a year ago on the plan to build the new military task force in the region and the advance teams had been there for six months, according to three U.S. counterterror officials and a former intelligence official.

The counterterror 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.

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 counterterrorism operations have been conducted in Africa so far.

“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 being taken by the Army’s top clandestine counterterrorist unit – known as Delta Force – 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 the new unit to get buy-in from all players who might be affected, such as the U.S. ambassadors, CIA station chiefs, regional U.S. military commanders and local leaders.

Eventually, the Delta Force group will 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 counterterror units.

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.

Published: 07:12 PM, Tue Oct 02, 2012

By Kimberly Dozier

The Associated Press

Find this story at 2 October 2012

Copyright 2012 – The Fayetteville Observer, Fayetteville, N.C.