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Officials Probing Whether al-Qaeda Planned Libya Attack

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton
President Barack Obama said yesterday at the White House Rose Garden, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side, “No act of terror will ever shake this great nation.” Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The four-hour assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi may have been orchestrated by groups tied to al-Qaeda, lawmakers said as U.S. officials began to investigate the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.

The attack in Libya that also killed three other U.S. personnel bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda and may have been carried out to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., said Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee.

The “military-style attack” on the consulate was “a planned, targeted event,” Rogers, a Michigan Republican, told reporters yesterday. Those who staged the “well-planned, well-coordinated” attack probably picked the timing of Sept. 11 “for a reason,” he said. “You can’t have this many coincidences on the same day.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate intelligence panel, also said the attack may have been premeditated.

It may have been the work of al-Qaeda because “the weapons were somewhat sophisticated, and they blew a hole in the building and started a big fire, and that’s how the ambassador died, in a fire,” Feinstein told CNN.

It’s too early to say who the perpetrators were and what affiliation they may have had, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters yesterday on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing with help from agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Today’s Protests

Early reports portrayed the protest in Libya as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube. The video, which ridicules the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, also sparked demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

Protests spread for a third day today. In Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, assailants breached the U.S. embassy’s security perimeter and set two cars on fire as security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowd, according to Yousef Al-Ahjan, one of the demonstrators. One protester was killed and five injured, Al Arabiya television reported.

In Cairo, at least 216 people were injured, most from tear gas inhalation, in clashes near the U.S. embassy, said Ahmed el-Ansari, vice president of the Egyptian Ambulance Organization.

Protesters outside the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. interests, chanted “death to Israel” and “death to America.”

President Barack Obama called the leaders of Egypt and Libya to request help in securing American diplomatic offices. “The president said that he rejects efforts to denigrate Islam, but underscored that there is never any justification for violence against innocents,” according to a statement.

Benghazi Compound

The Pentagon dispatched an anti-terrorism team of 50 U.S. Marines from Europe to Tripoli, Libya’s capital, to safeguard the U.S. embassy there and also assist in evacuating American personnel from Libya, U.S. officials told reporters yesterday.

Two U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have been assigned to patrol off Libya, U.S. officials said. The USS Laboon is already on station, and the USS McFaul will arrive within two days, the officials said. They said the warships, which haven’t received specific orders, will be available for contingencies.

The assault on the Benghazi compound, which includes a main building, several ancillary buildings and an annex, began about 10 p.m. local time on Sept. 11, according to the officials who briefed reporters.

In about 15 minutes the assailants had breached the perimeter guarded by Libyan security forces and began setting fire to buildings, said one of the officials.

Armed Groups

It took Libyan security forces and U.S. personnel, repelled by flames, dark smoke and small-arms fire, four hours to regain control, the official said. By 2 a.m., three Americans were found dead inside the compound, and Ambassador Stevens couldn’t be found, the official said. Stevens had been taken to a hospital and his body was later returned to U.S. personnel at the Benghazi airport, the official said.

The consulate in Benghazi came under rocket attack, Libya’s deputy interior minister, Wanis El-Sharif, said by phone yesterday. The British Broadcasting Corp. said attackers also threw homemade bombs at the compound.

Libya’s government has a plan to confront armed groups, Mustafa Abushagur told Al Arabiya television after he was elected prime minister by lawmakers yesterday.

‘Unacceptable in Libya’

“This plan deals with the current challenges, including irresponsible armed groups” like the one behind the attack on the American consulate, Abushagur said. “This is unacceptable in Libya, unacceptable to the people and our values, because these people are guests in our country.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sean Smith, a foreign service information management official, was one of those killed in Benghazi.

Stevens, 52, arrived in Tripoli as ambassador in May, having served as special representative to the Transitional National Council from March 2011, shortly after the start of the rebellion against Qaddafi. He served as deputy chief of mission in Libya from 2007 to 2009, according to a biography published online by the U.S. State Department.

Ties Threatened

The deaths in Libya and protests outside other U.S. embassies over the disputed video recalled the worldwide demonstrations in 2005 after a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

A 14-minute clip of the video posted on Google Inc.’s YouTube shows a fictional attack by Muslims on a Christian family followed by an account of the origins of Islam depicting Muhammad as a womanizer.

Google said yesterday that YouTube has blocked access to the video in Egypt and Libya “given the very difficult situation” in both countries. The video will remain on the site because it meets YouTube’s guidelines, Mountain View, California-based Google said in an e-mailed statement.

The conflict threatens U.S. efforts to establish new ties in a region where leaders including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, and Libya’s Qaddafi were toppled last year and Islamist parties are growing in influence.

Obama condemned the Libya attack “in the strongest terms” and vowed to work with Libyan officials to track down those responsible. “No act of terror will ever shake this great nation,” Obama said yesterday at the White House Rose Garden, with Clinton at his side.

Libya’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ali Aujali issued “an apology to America and the American people” and said at a news conference in Washington that his government “will try everything possible to find out who is responsible for this deadly attack.”

Personnel Evacuated

Those killed in the attack and other American personnel were evacuated by chartered flights from Benghazi to Tripoli and later to Germany, one of the U.S. officials said. Wounded personnel will be treated in Germany and the remains of the dead would be flown to the U.S., the official said.

The attack in Benghazi was the most serious to date against a foreign mission in a country that’s struggled to ensure security since Qaddafi’s ouster. Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising, has seen attacks on British diplomats and an earlier attack on the U.S. consulate, while Libyan government buildings have been targeted in Tripoli.

In Tunisia, authorities fired tear gas and rubber bullets yesterday to repel a crowd of several hundred protesters who tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Tunis.

Cairo Questions

In Cairo, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy Sept. 11, ripping down the U.S. flag and replacing it with a banner carrying an Islamic inscription.

The Cairo riot raised “a lot of questions about what triggered the violence,” Representative Rogers told reporters. The video clip couldn’t have been the only trigger because that is “not consistent with what we’ve seen in the past when it comes to extremist elements hoping to incite violence.”

While Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney joined Republican and Democratic lawmakers in condemning the attacks, he also said the Obama administration sent “mixed signals” by failing to disavow a statement issued on Sept. 11 by the U.S. embassy in Cairo before the death of the American ambassador. The embassy was “effectively apologizing for the right of free speech,” Romney said.

Million-Man March

The statement posted on the embassy’s website said the embassy “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

American air power helped Libya’s insurgents overthrow Qaddafi, while in Egypt the military has received more than $1 billion a year in U.S. aid since 1979 in return for maintaining a peace treaty with Israel.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood called for a million-man march on Sept. 14 to protest the video. Under Islam, any depiction or representation of the prophet is deemed blasphemous and ridiculing him is even more serious.

The protests cast a new spotlight on Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt after the election of President Mohamed Mursi, who came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. After clashes between Muslims and Christians in the months following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last year, Mursi’s government has repeatedly said it will represent all Egyptians.

The U.S. must take a “firm stand” against the producers of the film and act in line with international accords that “criminalize actions that create sectarian strife” on the basis of race, color or religion, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil told reporters yesterday.

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