After the deadly attack Sept. 11 on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Obama administration has been threatening to open a new military front in North Africa by taking unilateral action against extremist groups there.
Preparations for such a move had been conspicuously leaked in the run-up to Oct. 10 congressional hearings, in which Republicans, in particular, planned to scrutinize security at the mission, where the ambassador and three other Americans died.
Islamic militancy is a growing danger in North Africa. U.S. drone attacks or commando raids, however, risk feeding that extremism and ought to be kept in reserve. The administration would be better off with a more sustainable policy of helping North African governments confront extremists whose targets and goals are more likely to be local than global.
Violent groups that share al-Qaida’s aim of imposing puritanical Islamic rule have benefited from breakdowns in security brought on by the Arab Spring and a coup in Mali. Of particular concern is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in Mali, Mauritania and Niger. AQIM swears allegiance to what’s left of al-Qaida, but so far it is a regional rather than a global menace. In Libya, Ansar al-Shariah, a coalition of fundamentalist militia groups united by the goal of putting Shariah in place there, was implicated in the Benghazi assault.
Neither group has risen to the level of Yemen’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been linked to several plots on the U.S. homeland. That group is, appropriately, the subject of U.S. military action.
Now the administration is talking about similar drone strikes and commando raids as possible responses to AQIM and Ansar al-Shariah. One reason is that U.S. forces have developed the extraordinary ability over the past decade to pinpoint suspects just about anywhere and capture or kill them.
As the deteriorating U.S. relationship with Pakistan testifies, however, taking unilateral military action in someone else’s country has its price. And that is even before considering the weighty moral and legal arguments over such lethal strikes.
Libya is the most pro-American nation in the Arab world today, so much so that Benghazi residents outraged by the attack on the U.S. mission stormed and temporarily overtook Ansar al-Shariah compounds in the city. That remarkable store of goodwill almost surely would be lost should U.S. forces act unilaterally in Libya, especially if civilians were killed or hurt, as they often are in drone strikes. As for AQIM, U.S. attacks would almost certainly ensure that the group, which hasn’t targeted U.S. interests, would do so in the future.
The United States can’t remain passive when its diplomats have been slain and militants are a growing menace. The U.S. can work with Niger and Mauritania, which have demonstrated the political will to contain AQIM — although the lack of a recognized government in Mali constrains cooperation there. Those countries need support. So do Libyan authorities who are building from scratch the infrastructure of a modern state.
Apart from sharing information with these governments about extremists, the U.S. can help by training border guards to secure frontiers, soldiers to conduct raids, intelligence agents to conduct surveillance and police officers to interrogate suspects within the bounds of the law. The U.S. has provided more of this assistance in recent years to allies vulnerable to extremism. Yet within the U.S. government, this long-term approach competes for attention and resources with the quick, dramatic results seemingly promised by military action.
The deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues are rightly provoking a re-examination of security procedures. In the ensuing effort to find and punish their killers, however, the U.S. should avoid strategies that will only create new enemies and make things worse.