The attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that resulted in the death of four Americans was premeditated and took advantage of a protest, according to senators briefed on the assault.
“This was a calculated act of terror on the part of a small group of jihadists,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill today after a closed briefing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
McCain’s description reflects a growing consensus that militants in Benghazi seized on what was initially a more spontaneous protest Sept. 11 against an anti-Islamic film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.
“There was a group of either al-Qaeda or radical Islamists, about 15 of them, armed with RPGs and other lethal weapons that seized this opportunity to attack our consulate,” said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. “It wasn’t an act of a mob getting out of control. People don’t go to demonstrate and carry RPGs and automatic weapons.”
“If it’s not al-Qaeda, it’s certainly one of the affiliated organizations,” McCain said.
Senators Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, said it wasn’t yet clear whether al-Qaeda was involved. It was “a well-planned and professional terrorist act against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi,” Lieberman said.
McCain criticized President Barack Obama as not doing enough to assert U.S. leadership in the Middle East.
“It’s clear that the message throughout the Middle East is the United States is weak and the United States is leaving,” McCain said. The senator, who lost the presidential election to Obama in 2008, said he has urged Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to give a foreign policy speech emphasizing U.S. leadership.
Lieberman, who has joined McCain in urging U.S. to provide arms to the rebels in Syria, came to the Obama administration’s defense regarding the Libya attack.
“I don’t personally believe that it’s because of American policy that any of these things are happening,” he said. “But I do believe that there’s more we can do and that we have a national interest in doing in trying to bring more stability to the Middle East.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org