Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US State Department employees were killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya Tuesday night.
President Barack Obama condemned the "outrageous attack" in a statement released by the White House Wednesday morning. The incident threatened to undermine US policy toward Libya and the wider Middle East, and presented Obama with a new complication just two months before a closely contested presidential election.
The attack on the consulate in Benghazi was sparked by an anti-Muslim movie called “Mohammad,” by an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile. It has infuriated Islamists because it portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light and also portrays his followers as buffoons.
The video was unnoticed until an Arabic version was produced. It became widely circulated when Arabic TV channels began playing segments of the trailer, and preachers began slamming the film in Friday sermons.
Much has been written about the film and the perceptions of it in the Arab world. The US embassy in Cairo is still undergoing what appears to be a peaceful, relatively small and minor protest that, at its most violent, saw the American flag burned.
But what has happened in Libya appears far more violent and serious. The Wall Street Journal reports that the attack occurred at around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, when members of an Islamist group called “Ansar al Sharia” attacked the consulate with rocket-propelled grenades and raided the compound.
It’s unclear how or when Ambassador Stevens and the other three state department employees were killed.
A Western diplomat in Benghazi said he was “shocked” at the death of the Ambassador Stevens, whom he described as a good friend.
“This is not Baghdad, but security is an issue,” he told Al-Monitor on Wednesday, September 12, on condition of anonymity because he did not have authorization to speak on the record.
“No one saw this coming. It is definitely not something that I foresaw,” he said.
The diplomat told Al-Monitor that the Americans tried to evacuate the embassy after the attack began.
“It was then that people got killed,” he said. “There were many guards there, but if four pickups come with rocket-ropelled grenades, then security guards are useless. Security is the number-one issue. The state needs to get back the monopoly of power, and apparently the government has not done anything to disarm militias and increase levels security-wise. Last year, Gadhafi and the rebels literally armed the whole country.”
What’s also unclear is how the Libyan security forces allowed such a breach of the consulate’s perimeter, or if they played a role in the attack. Security forces have stood by, or even assisted, Islamist militants accused of destroying Sufi shrines over the past month.
Are Islamists really this powerful in Benghazi? Or are the security forces this weak? Is it a combination of both? The Western diplomat seemed to think it was a combination of factors.
“There are Islamist strongholds here, but it’s not a big community, perhaps a couple thousand,” he said. “But that’s enough to storm a consulate and kill the ambassador.”
He said the bombing meant a major change in terms of how the West perceives Libya and some of the Islamist fighters who supported the revolution.
“Once the violence reaches the people that helped actively support the revolution, then it’s something different. The general mood is that this isn’t Libya. The government doesn’t have security.”
It’s a huge change from the first days of the revolution. When I was in Benghazi just after the revolution there kicked off, in March and April 2011, it was the safest place in Libya — and perhaps North Africa — for Americans. After the paranoia directed at foreigners during the Egyptian revolution, the Libyans were open and welcoming, and vowed to protect the media and aid workers who came into the country illegally across the Egyptian border.
I met Islamist rebel commander named Abdul-Hakim al-Hasidi in the city of Derna, which a US embassy staffer in a cable once described as a “wellspring for foreign fighters in Iraq.” Hasidi had been imprisoned in Libya for being a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
A West Point report said that a whopping 20% of foreign fighters in Iraq came from Libya, many of them from the Benghazi area and further east, in places like Derna.
Hasidi told me at the time that he did not hate the West, that they wanted help from the Americans and Europe, saying, “we are not terrorists.” As if to prove his credentials, he said he had just conducted an interview with a reporter from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten — the same newspaper that published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and sparked an outcry across the Islamic world.
The feeling was the same in other areas, especially in Benghazi. Benghazi residents made their own American flags to wave both before and during the NATO intervention. There were photos of President Obama and then-French President Nikolai Sarkozi, with the words “Thank You!” underneath.
At rebel checkpoints in Libya’s east, fighters would flash the “V for Victory” sign and say “Yes, Sarkozy! Obama!”
When a US combat aircraft suffered a malfunction over Libya and crashed during the imposition of the NATO no-fly zone, local residents rescued one of the pilots, who was taken to a local farmhouse and served tea.
“I walked into the room and got a round of applause," the pilot told CNN.
In less than two years, with no major events involving the United States, how does the situation change so drastically that four US government employees are massacred in their residence in Libya’s second-largest city? Benghazi-based Libyan journalist and activist Khadija Ali told Al-Monitor she remembers those days well. She worked with American journalists at the peak of the revolution, and is shocked and saddened by last night’s attack.
“People have been very sympathetic and grateful to the US,” she said. “Now, people are talking about conspiracies.”
This tragic incident will have ramifications both locally and regionally, and probably all but end any possibility of intervention in Syria. Images coming out of Libya look more like "Black Hawk Down" than the Arab Spring. Except this time, it’s the guys we armed who did it. The beards and the black flags they’re flying sure look similar to the beards and black flags the Syrian rebels are flying. It will not endear anyone to the Islamists, especially those with guns.
In Benghazi, Mohammed Ruweiey, another Libyan journalist who worked with Westerners during the revolution, sensed the weight of what has happened.
“We are all worried and no one knows what is going to happen next here,” he said. “We hope that this can be solved, that diplomacy can solve this.”
Ben Gilbert is News Editor for Al-Monitor.
Patrick Galey, Tyler Huffman and Tim Fitzsimons contributed to this report.