09/12/2012 03:45 pm ET

Libya Al Qaeda Threat Growing, U.S. Military Officials Say

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. warfighting commander who would oversee any U.S. retaliatory strikes for the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya Tuesday recently warned of the growing influence of al Qaeda and related Islamic jihadist groups.

Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. Africa Command and directed the U.S.-led coalition that collapsed the regime of Muammar Gaddafi last year, expressed concern that violent extremist organizations were establishing a presence in post-war Libya.

In the wake of Tuesday's attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, and on the American embassy in Cairo, U.S. intelligence officials and senior military officers at AFRICOM and elsewhere were scrambling to identify the attackers and to confirm reports that the attacks were planned and coordinated. Military planners were already well into developing strike options for the White House to consider.

"Make no mistake -- justice will be done," President Obama declared at the White House Wednesday.

But White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday that it would be "premature" to affix responsibility or motive for the attacks.

Ham, along with Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, who commands American air operations over Europe and northern Africa, would be the primary leaders in any retaliatory strikes ordered by the Obama administration against the extremists in Libya. Counter-terrorist strikes, such as the operation carried out against Osama bin Laden in May, 2011, would be led by Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Vogel, commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.

"We see some worrying indicators that al-Qaeda and others are seeking to establish a presence in Libya," Ham told a Pentagon gathering of senior leaders in June. He singled out one organization, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as "very clearly" working to bring down Libya's new post-war government.

Ham has called AQIM al Qaeda's "best funded, wealthiest affiliate."

But it's not the only one flourishing in Libya. Other analysts said the radical Islamist groups clustering in Libya include Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, led by Muhammed Zahawi, and Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah, also based in eastern Libya.

According to Aaron Y. Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the group based in Darnah is led by a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abu Sufyan bin Qumu. He was released by the Bush administration in 2007 to the custody of the Libyan government.