Officials stressed that no decisions have been made about deploying armed drones or other lethal assets. The nearest U.S. drone base in Africa is across the continent in Ethiopia, and administration officials said they would consider unilateral strikes only as a last resort.
For now, the officials said, the emphasis is on replicating aspects of the counterterrorism formula in Somalia. The United States has conducted intelligence operations there, as well as strikes, but has mainly relied on African troops to battle an al-Qaeda-linked militant group known as al-Shabab.
Ham, the U.S. commander in Africa, has said that in Mali, that task has been made more difficult by political instability and the failure to act earlier. The United States, the Malian government and other countries “missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak,” Ham told reporters during a visit to Senegal in July.
He called AQIM the “best-funded, wealthiest” affiliate, thanks to its lucrative practice of kidnapping foreigners for ransom and its smuggling prowess.