The American military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is preparing detailed information that could be used to kill or capture some of the militants suspected in the attack last month in Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, senior military and counterterrorism officials said on Tuesday.
Preparing the “target packages” is the first step in a process that the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency are taking in preparation for, and in advance of, any orders from President Obama and his top civilian and military advisers to carry out action against those determined complicit in the attack on the United States Mission in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Mr. Obama, whose administration has faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over a possible intelligence failure before the Benghazi attack, has vowed that he would bring the killers of Mr. Stevens and the three other Americans to justice, but he and his top advisers have not indicated how that might happen.
Mr. Obama has a range of options available — including drone strikes, Special Operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden; and joint missions with the Libyan authorities — but all carry substantial political, diplomatic and physical risks. Administration officials say no decisions have been made on any potential targets.
The Joint Special Operations Command, which includes the Navy SEAL team that killed Bin Laden, works continuously with the C.I.A. to update several lists of potential terrorist targets around the world.
Since the attack on the diplomatic mission and a nearby annex in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11, American officials say that Special Operations planners have sharply increased their efforts to track the location and gather information on several members of Ansar al-Shariah as well as other militants with ties to Al Qaeda’s arm in North Africa — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — that American officials believe were involved in planning and carrying out the attack there.
It remained unclear precisely how many of the “target packages” are being prepared — perhaps a dozen or more — but military and counterterrorism officials said that the Libyan authorities had identified several suspected assailants based on witness accounts, video and other photographs from the scene.
“They are putting together information on where these individuals live, who their family members and their associates are, and their entire pattern of life,” said one American official who has been briefed on the target planning now under way.
American intelligence-gathering assets — spies, satellite imagery, electronic-eavesdropping devices, among others — are finite, so counterterrorism authorities preparing the “target packages” must prioritize which militants in Benghazi — or elsewhere if they have fled the area since the attack — need to be monitored on a nearly hour-by-hour, if not minute-by-minute, basis.
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