Armed men at the US Consulate in Benghazi killed US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff late Tuesday following a protest by people upset over an American- made film that bashes the prophet Muhammad.
Although initial reports described the events as a demonstration that had spiraled out of control, there are indications that the attack may have been planned, most likely by Islamic radicals who have been gaining ground in Libya.
Stevens had gone to the consulate in still-restive Benghazi to oversee its evacuation after the demonstration had started. The building was then stormed by gunmen, who succeeded in setting it on fire.
The ambassador was well-liked by many Libyans, particularly the pro-democracy rebels on whose behalf he passionately argued during the conflict last year that brought down dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
An almost-simultaneous demonstration was held outside the US Embassy in Cairo, though events did not turn violent there. Both protests were sparked by a 14-minute trailer of the hour-long movie Innocence of Muslims, which was posted on YouTube and openly ridicules the prophet Muhammad – whom religious Muslims believe should not be portrayed at all.
The shortened version of the video is being promoted and circulated by Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian in the Washington area who has expressed extreme anti- Islamist views.
There are several indications, however, that there was a concerted effort to rile up emotions based on the crude video in the days before the attack, and that the demonstration may have been a pretext for a more serious assault.
The fact that it happened on September 11, coinciding with the 11th anniversary of al-Qaida’s attacks on the US, fueled speculation that it was a planned attack, rather than spontaneous violence.
Also, a day before the attack, al-Qaida posted a video online in which acting leader Ayman al-Zawahri acknowledged the death of his Libyan deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, back in June in a US drone strike. In the video, posted on various Islamist Internet forums, he called on Libyans to avenge Libi’s death.
In the days before the attack, a reporter in Benghazi said that there were attempts among local Islamic activists to whip up anger toward the US over the video.
“In recent days, Islamic groups in Benghazi had been calling on people, using social media websites and emails, spreading the word to everyone, to go to the consulate and protest over the film. They called on normal civilians to go and attack the consulate, and many people followed them. They were firing at the sky and trying to storm the consulate, so the guards from inside started shooting at them, and it deteriorated from there,” a Benghazi- based reporter for an Arabic satellite channel told The Jerusalem Post.
During the news conference, Libyan Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif said the attackers were not mere protesters, and had used rocket-propelled grenades and paramilitary equipment.
“There were RPGs... which shows there were forces exploiting this. They are remnants of the [former] regime,” he said at the news conference.
Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim Keib also spoke out against the attack, telling reporters, “This is a criminal act that will not go unpunished.
This is part of a series of cowardly acts by supporters of the former regime who want to undermine Libya’s revolution.”
It remains unclear how much overlap there is between the two groups being blamed: Gaddafi loyalists embittered by the dethroning of the Libyan regime as they knew it or international jihadist groups who have an ax to grind against the US. But another journalist who has recently been in Benghazi said the area had seen an influx of both al- Qaida and Hezbollah operatives.
“There are extremists, many people who came in from the outside, because the government is not fully in control and it’s an opportunity,” said Samir Gharbiyeh, a Jordanian journalist.
“There is not enough security on the ground, and everyone has guns. Especially in the Benghazi area and the villages nearby, security is bad. There have been a lot of attacks on the UN, on NGOs, and not long ago the British ambassador’s convoy was attacked.”
President Barack Obama said the attack would not break the bonds between the United States and Libya.
“These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity,” Obama said in a statement from the White House Rose Garden.
“Make no mistake: We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered condolences to the US and said Israelis understood how they felt.
“The people of Israel grieve with the American people; we send our condolences to the families,” Netanyahu said.
“If there’s any people in the world that understands what Americans are going through, what they went through in 9/11, it’s the people of Israel, who’ve been standing at the forefront of the battle against terrorism, who’ve lost loved ones and who deeply, deeply sympathize with the people of America at this time,” he said.
Across Libya and the Libyan diaspora, many expressed shock over the attack, and many Libyans on Twitter suggested that even a highly offensive video did not justify the violence.
“Libya has lost one of its staunchest supporters and advocates for democracy and development. Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, played a crucial role in getting the US involved in the NATO campaign over Libya,” Asma Magariaf, a Libyan-American activist based in Washington, wrote in a series of tweets. “Anger, disgust and outrage are three emotions I’ve been experiencing all day today.”
The attack, representing the first time a US ambassador was killed in the line of duty since 1979, is a painful blow to the Obama administration’s attempts to improve its profile in the region.
“Libya is a state that is not coming together as a functioning entity; it’s a place that’s awash in weapons and militias and different groups that are trying to wrest control,” said Bruce Maddy-Weizman, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“It’s a Herculean task, because there was never a political community to begin with. They just had elections; the Americans are in deep there, trying to help Libya transition,” he continued.
“No matter how they try to modify their strategies and lower their profile, reach out to the Muslim world... the Americans are entangled and they remain an easy target.”
Stevens took office in May, introducing himself and his goals for a new, post-tyranny Libya in a video. He served as the special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council from March 2011 to November 2011, during the height of the Libyan civil war, and as the deputy chief of mission from 2007 to 2009. He also served as the deputy principal officer and political section chief at the US Consulate in Jerusalem, dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 2002 to 2006.
Doug Saunders, a correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail, described Stevens as a “cool-headed diplomat” in a tribute to the slain ambassador.
“In off-record briefings, he was exceptionally calm and the self-assured voice of confidence in the revolution’s project, drawing on what appeared to be a deep personal understanding of Arab politics, cultures and factions to explain the deeply layered and contradictory conglomeration of movements that his government had decided to back fully.”