A bloody attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left American ambassador Christopher Stevens, two marines and a communications officer dead was a planned ambush by terrorists using a pro-Islam protest as cover, it has been claimed.
The victims died during a rocket attack when an armed mob set fire to the consulate in Benghazi after joining a protest over a ‘blasphemous’ film about the Prophet Mohammed.
It is believed a ‘small, vicious group’ of attackers used the protest as a diversion, although questions remain over whether the killers drummed up support for the march or simply took advantage of it, an official told CNN.
While it is not known exactly who was responsible for the rampage, a London think tank with strong ties to Libya said Stevens, who is not believed to have been targeted, could have been the victim of a revenge attack by al Qaeda.
The assault ‘came to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago’ in Pakistan, think tank Quilliam told CNN, noting the rocket-propelled grenade launchers used in the attack do not normally appear at peaceful protests.
‘The military assault against the US Consulate in Benghazi should not be seen as part of a protest against a low budget film which was insulting Islam – there were just a few peaceful protesters present at the event,’ Quilliam said in a statement.
‘Indeed, there have been no other demonstrations regarding this film in Libya. We at Quilliam believe the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was a well-planned terrorist attack that would have occurred regardless of the demonstration, to serve another purpose.’
Officials also reportedly voiced their concern that the attack was timed for the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which were commemorated across the U.S. on Tuesday.
‘We’ve been talking for years about the desire of Al Qaeda, radical jihadists to celebrate the anniversary of 9/11,’ Pete Hoekstra, former chairman of the House intelligence committee, told FoxNews.com. ‘All my background, all of the conversations that I’ve had over the last 18 hours lead many people to believe that this was just more than a mere coincidence.’
He added that Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri recently released a video calling on militants to attacks Americans for revenge for the death in Pakistan – and that the anti-Mohammed film could have been a cover.
As speculations over what led to the attack intensify, President Barack Obama has deployed a team of 50 marines to the compound in Benghazi which was left ravaged by firebombs during the attack.
He could also command unmanned surveillance drones to fly over Benghazi in search of jihadi encampments possibly tied to the deadly attack, a U.S. official said. The drones, which would pass gathered information to Libyans, are expected to be approved by the Pentagon and White House shortly.
Christopher Stevens, 52, was at the compound evacuating staff when the building was stormed by 20 heavily-armed militants.
During a 20 minute fire fight, Libyan guards positioned inside the consulate managed to hold the attackers off as they sprayed the building with bullets before hurling a bomb inside. In the carnage, Sean Smith, a foreign service information management officer was shot dead.
Ambassador Stevens and his team made a desperate bid to flee by car to safety. But the vehicle came under heavy arms fire and was hit by a rocket, leaving it disabled and at the mercy of the mob.
Two marines attempted to aid Ambassador Stevens but were also shot dead, according to CBS.
Graphic images taken at the scene show civilians making desperate attempts to pull the diplomat to safety. But their efforts were futile.
Arab television station Al Jazeera today reported that Ambassador Stevens died of smoke inhalation, while the doctor who treated him said he died of severe asphyxiation, which caused stomach bleeding. He said Stevens had no other injuries.
The doctor, Ziad Abu Zeid, said Stevens was brought to the Benghazi Medical Center by Libyans on Tuesday night with no other Americans and that initially no one realized he was the ambassador. He tried for 90 minutes to revive him.
Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and had already served two tours in Libya, including running the office in Benghazi during the revolt against Gaddafi. Five other US ambassadors have been killed in the line of duty, the last being Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan in 1979.
President Barack Obama today condemned the attack and paid tribute to the late Ambassador Stevens as he ordered increased security at diplomatic posts around the world.
‘It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi as it’s a city that he helped to save,’ Obama said outside the White House.
With ‘characteristic skill, courage and resolve, he built partnerships with Libyans… and he worked tirelessly to support this young democracy.
‘He was a role model to those who worked with him and to the young diplomats who strive to follow in his footsteps.
These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity. We grieve with their families but let us carry on their memory… I have no doubt that their legacy will live on.’
He added: ‘The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this outrageous and shocking attack. There is no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.’
In a statement, Hillary Clinton added : ‘I had the privilege of swearing in Chris for his post in Libya only a few months ago. He risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation.’
She said they were still trying to contact the next of kin for the other two men.
The deaths will put huge pressure on the Libyan administration which took over after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Despite the West taking a key role in his overthrow, the country remains unstable and Islamic militants have moved into the power vacuum.
There are also huge questions about the security surrounding both Ambassador Stevens, who was believed to be in Benghazi for the opening of an American building, and the US diplomatic buildings in such a volatile country.
The attack came amid violence in Libya and Cairo, which had been sparked by a 14-minute trailer for a film called The Innocence of Muslims posted on YouTube.
In an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, Mohammed is depicted as a fraud, a womaniser and a madman, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
It was made by Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew – but who has reportedly been using a pseudonym. ‘Bacile’ said he had produced, directed and written the two-hour film which had only been shown once to a mostly empty theater in Hollywood earlier this year.
‘Islam is a cancer, period,’ he said in an interview yesterday, speaking after the State Department confirmed the death of an American in Benghazi.
He was apologetic about the killing but blamed lax embassy security and the perpetrators of the violence. ‘I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,’ said Bacile. ‘America should do something to change it.’
Lebanon’s Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah claimed the film was an attack on religious belief, reflecting Western policy and branded it an ‘immoral act which represents the highest degree of aggression against the highest human right … for respect of beliefs and sanctities.’
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai slammed the film and, fearing another anti-US backlash, ordered the YouTube site to be shut until the video is taken down and the US Embassy in the capital Kabul appealed for help in ‘maintaining calm.’YouTube pulled the film on Wednesday.
The movie featured on Egyptian media reports for several days with ultraconservative clerics going on air to denounce it and also to attack Sadek, who they blamed for the film.
Matters came to a head yesterday when hundreds of mainly ultraconservative Islamist protesters in Egypt marched to the US Embassy in downtown Cairo, gathering outside its walls and chanting against the movie and the US.
Most of the embassy staff had left the compound earlier because of warnings of the upcoming demonstration.
The crowd chanted, ‘Islamic, Islamic. The right of our prophet will not die.’ Some shouted, ‘We are all Osama,’ referring to al-Qaida leader bin Laden.
Young men, some in masks, sprayed graffiti on the walls. Some grumbled that Islamist President Mohammed Morsi had not spoken out about the movie.
A group of women in black veils and robes that left only their eyes exposed chanted, ‘Worshippers of the Cross, leave the Prophet Mohammed alone.’
Dozens of protesters then scaled the embassy walls, and several went into the courtyard and took down the American flag from a pole. They brought it back to the crowd outside, which tried to burn it, but failing that tore it apart.
The protesters on the wall then raised on the flagpole a black flag with a Muslim declaration of faith, ‘There is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet.’ The flag is commonly used by ultraconservatives around the region.
The Cairo embassy is in a diplomatic area in Garden City, where the British and Italian embassies are located, only a few blocks away from Tahrir Square, the center of last year’s uprising that led to the ouster of Mubarak.
The U.S. Embassy is built like a fortress, with a wall several metres high. But security has been scaled back in recent months, with several roadblocks leading to the facility removed after legal court cases by residents.
Trouble quickly spread to Libya where a group identifiying itself as the ‘Islamic Law Supporters’ attacked the consulate on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on American in protest at a film that they deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Mohammed.
A furious mob fired gunshots and then set the building alight as they clashed with Libyans hired to guard the facility. Outnumbered by the crowd, Libyan security forces did little to stop them, al-Sharef said.
Witnesses reported militants firing rocket-propelled grenades from a nearby farmhouse.
The situation rapidly deteriorated as the army tried to cordon off the area around the building and fought running battles with the attackers. But the crowd overwhelmed the facility, looting the contents.
‘I heard nearly 10 explosions and all kinds of weapons. It was a terrifying day,’ said a witness who refused to give his name because he feared retribution.
Order was eventually restored after three hours but there was very little of the consulate left. State Hillary Rodham Clinton strongly condemning the attack in a statement shortly after.
She said she had called Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif ‘to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya.’
‘Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,’ Clinton said in a statement released by the State Department.
‘The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.’
It was some hours later that it emerged Ambassador Stevens and three of his team had been killed.
Mitt Romney used the event as an opportunity to take aim at Obama, accusing the administration of a ‘severe miscalculation’ and calling its handling of the incident ‘akin to an apology’.
‘I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,’ Romney said in a statement, when a single death had been reported. ‘It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.’
His comments referred to an earlier statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo which condemned the anti-Islam film, which he said ‘reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world’ and which he likened to an apology of American values.
He added that Obama was responsible for the embassy statement – even though White House officials had distanced themselves from it on Tuesday.
‘We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,’ Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, countered.
The brutal attacks on Tuesday night were the first such assaults on US diplomatic facilities in either country, at a time when both Libya and Egypt are struggling to overcome the turmoil following the ouster of their longtime leaders, Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.