U.S. ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, and three embassy staff members were killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday. While details remain unclear, according to early reports the U.S. mission came under attack from an armed mob that fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades as well as set fire to the consulate. Stevens is said to have died from smoke inhalation after entering the compound to help evacuate staff.
Hours earlier, the U.S. embassy in Egypt was surrounded by some 2,000 protesters. Many breached the embassy’s walls, tore down the American flag flying at half-mast to mark the September 11 attacks, and replaced it with a black Islamist flag that reads, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Following the attacks, President Obama ordered heightened security for U.S. diplomats serving abroad.
The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya is seen in flames after being attacked on September 11, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
While it is unknown if the attacks were directly linked, it was first suspected that the upset began over a 14-minute trailer posted on YouTube of the movie “Innocence of Muslims.” The movie claims that the Prophet Muhammad was a fraud, depicts him as a philanderer, and says he approved of child sexual abuse, among other assertions.
The FBI, however, has opened an investigation into the death of Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues in Libya, looking specifically into the cause of the attack that mounting evidence suggests was well-planned and perpetrated by armed militants rather than a mob enraged by a movie. According to Libyan Interior Ministry official Wanis al-Sharef, Islamic terrorists had threatened to take revenge for the death of al-Qaeda deputy leader and Libyan, Abu Yahya al-Libi, whose June death by U.S. drone was finally acknowledged by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video released the day of the Benghazi attack.
Libya’s interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, condemned the killings and assured that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. In Egypt, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil said that the Egyptian riot was unacceptable, and President Mohammed Morsi “condemned the transgression upon the prophet and ordered the Egyptian Embassy in Washington to take appropriate legal measures against the producers of the film,” his spokesman Yasser Ali said Wednesday.
The attack heightens existing concerns over security in both Libya and Egypt. In Libya — awash with arms after the toppling of Qaddafi — the government does not maintain a monopoly over force. As for Egypt, the attack raises serious questions over the safety of American personnel under its new government.