U.S. Consulate Attack Turning Point for Libya, Magariaf Says

Libya must take on the militants believed to be involved in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, according to the head of the country’s legislature, who said the assault that left four Americans dead was part of a wider plan to destabilize the nation.

Mohammed Yussef Magariaf, the recently elected head of the General National Congress, said in an interview in Benghazi that communications intercepted by the U.S. ahead of the attack linked al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to another Islamist brigade known as Ansar al-Shariah.

The attacks on U.S. and other diplomatic mission in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Yemen over the past few days were largely sparked by a film denigrating Islam’s prophet. The incidents also laid bare the challenges confronting many of these nations as they emerge from the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

“This is a turning point for the country,” Magariaf said, referring to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador and three others dead. “Confrontation is necessary and inevitable with these elements. Today, it is the Americans, tomorrow it is going to be the Libyans.”

Magariaf said the assault on the U.S. mission was part of a wider campaign to destabilize Libya, and the militants must be “confronted” by pro-government forces.

Arrests for Attack

The legislature’s head said separately on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program today that about 50 arrests have been made in connection with the attack.

The spokesman for Libya’s Supreme Security Committee said by phone that the names of as many as 50 people had been given to Libyan border posts, “but some may have escaped to Egypt.”

The disparity in information about the arrests in Libya, coupled with questions about whether the attack was preplanned or spontaneous, reflected the state of uncertainty and instability in Libya, where the new prime minister has yet to appoint a government and the country has been mired in violence since Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster last year.

The attack in Benghazi was the deadliest of the assaults on U.S. missions in several Arab nations. Egypt’s Interior Ministry said 417 people had been arrested in connection with about five days of protests that began on Sept. 11. In Tunisia, 75 were arrested in connection with attacks on the U.S. embassy on Sept. 14. The attack there included several thousand Salafis, who adhere to an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, protesting near the mission, burning vehicles in the embassy compound and torching the American school.

Rifts Among Militants

Magariaf said in the interview there appeared to be rifts even with the militants believed to be involved in the attack, with some of the Benghazi-based Ansar al-Sharia “for participation, some against.”

In either case, “it’s a deliberate, calculated action by a group working in collaboration with non-Libyan extremists,” he said. “I would not be surprised if it’s another country, but it’s not Saudi Arabia or Qatar, I’m sure.”

The Ansar al-Shariah brigade remains in its base in Benghazi, and its forces are guarding one of the city’s three main hospitals. Brigade members at both locations declined to be interviewed when approached by a Bloomberg reporter.

The U.S.’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the Benghazi protests were “hijacked” by extremists, leading to the violence.

McCain, Rice

The protest appears to have begun as “a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response” to protests in Cairo over a “very offensive video” about Islam, she said, speaking today on ABC News’s “This Week.”

Arizona Senator John McCain, the most senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, disputed Rice’s contention about a spontaneous attack.

“How spontaneous is a demonstration when people bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons?” McCain asked on “Face the Nation,” adding there is “no doubt” the attack was waged by “extremists,” though he didn’t know how long it had been planned.

With the Federal Bureau of Investigation planning a probe into the attack, Magariaf urged the U.S. to not act unilaterally, for fear such a step would inflame public sentiment.

“We will not hesitate to act -- to do what is our duty,” he said. “Let us start first, by ourselves, and if we are not capable” then others can help.

U.S. Intelligence

U.S. officials said today that American intelligence so far supports Magariaf’s contention that the main battles in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia are between hard-line militant groups backed or encouraged by al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate and more moderate Islamic governments, including Libya, in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

The extremists have tried to exploit what they called an amateurish anti-Muslim hate video distributed via YouTube to incite violence that would bring harsh government crackdowns, two officials said. The extremists hoped that, in turn, would discredit the new and unsteady governments and make them appear to be pawns of the U.S., where the video originated. So far, those officials said, the extremists appear to have what one called very limited success.

Rushing American forces or investigators to the scenes of trouble or vowing revenge could exacerbate the moderate regimes’ difficulties, one of the officials said.

“While it is prudent to dispatch military forces to the area, action should follow solid evidence,” Patrick M. Cronin of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy research institute, and Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the George Mason University School of Public Policy in Fairfax, Virginia, wrote today in the Global Times. “Until we know exactly who did what, this kind of unsophisticated reaction merely perpetuates the al-Qaeda brand, empowers terrorists and undermines our interests.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Stephen in Benghazi, Libya at cstephen9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Digby Lidstone at dlidstone@bloomberg.net

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