CAIRO — Islamist militants armed with antiaircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a lightly defended U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, late Tuesday, killing the U.S. ambassador and three members of his staff and raising fresh questions about the radicalization of countries swept up in the Arab Spring.
The ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, was missing almost immediately after the start of an intense, four-hour firefight for control of the mission, and his body was not located until Wednesday morning at dawn, when he was found dead at a Benghazi hospital, U.S. and Libyan officials said. It was the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador had died in a violent assault.
U.S. and European officials said that while many details about the attack remained unclear, the assailants seemed organized, well-trained and heavily armed and appeared to have at least some level of advanced planning. But the officials cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether the attack was related to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by a Islamist brigade formed during last year’s uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon.
Their attack followed by just a few hours the storming of the compound surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by an unarmed mob protesting the same video. On Wednesday, new crowds of protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassies in Tunis and in Cairo.
The wave of unrest set off by the video, posted online in the United States two months ago and dubbed into Arabic for the first time eight days ago, has further underscored the instability of the countries that cast off their longtime dictators in the Arab Spring revolts. It also cast doubt on the adequacy of security preparations at U.S. diplomatic outposts in the volatile region.
President Barack Obama condemned the killings, promised to bring the assailants to justice, and ordered tighter security at all U.S. diplomatic installations. The administration also dispatched 50 Marines to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to help with security at the U.S. Embassy there, and ordered all nonemergency personnel to leave Libya and warned Americans not to travel there. A senior defense official said Wednesday night that the Pentagon was moving two warships toward the Libyan coast as a precaution.
In Tripoli, Libyan leaders also vowed to track down the attackers and stressed their unity with Washington.
Obama administration officials and regional officials scrambled to sort out conflicting reports about the nature of the attack and the motivation of the attackers on Wednesday. A senior administration official told reporters during a conference call that “it was clearly a complex attack," but offered no details.
A translated version of the video that set off the uprising arrived first in Egypt before reaching the rest of the Islamic world. Its author, whose identity is now a mystery, devoted the video’s prologue to caricatured depictions of Egyptian Muslims abusing Egyptian Coptic Christians while Egyptian police officers stood by.
It was publicized last week by an American Coptic Christian activist, Morris Sadek, well known here for his scathing attacks on Islam.
Sadek promoted the video in tandem with a declaration by Terry Jones — a Florida pastor best known for burning the Quran and promoting what he called “International Judge Muhammad Day" on Sept. 11.