The protest in Libya that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last week appears to have begun spontaneously and was “hijacked” by extremists, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice said.
Intelligence so far shows the protest began as “a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response” to demonstrations in Cairo over a “very offensive video” criticizing Islam, Rice said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “As that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons.”
“We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned,” she said, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” She said on ABC that a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe aims to determine what happened in the Sept. 11 attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Even so, Arizona Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, disputed the contention that the attack on the Benghazi consulate was largely spontaneous.
“How spontaneous is a demonstration when people bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons?” McCain asked on CBS yesterday. He said there was “no doubt” the attack was waged by “extremists,” though he didn’t know how long it had been planned.
Mohammed Yussef Magariaf, the recently elected head of Libya’s General National Congress, said in an interview in Benghazi that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate “is a turning point for the country.”
“Confrontation is necessary and inevitable with these elements,” Magariaf said. “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. He said 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.
He said separately on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday that about 50 arrests have been made in connection with the attack.
The attacks on U.S. and other diplomatic missions in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen over the past few days were largely sparked by a film denigrating Islam’s prophet. The incidents have laid bare the challenges confronting many of these nations as they emerge from the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.
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 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.
The State Department ordered all non-emergency personnel and dependents to leave Sudan and Tunisia and issued travel warning for the countries Sept. 15.
Police and protesters yesterday clashed outside the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. One protester was killed and four were injured, GEO television reported.
The head of Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group, yesterday called for a nationwide protest over the anti-Muslim film. Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on Al-Manar television said the U.S. must be held accountable for creating strife between Muslims and Christians.
Nasrallah said the protest would be for the residents of Beirut and its southern suburb. The U.S. has imposed financial sanctions against Nasrallah for providing support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group, which draws much of its financial and military support from Iran through Syria, is a major militia force and political party in Lebanon and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S.
The Islamist 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.
Magariaf said 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.”
With the FBI planning a probe into the attack, Magariaf urged the U.S. to not act unilaterally, for fear such a step would inflame public sentiment.
U.S. officials said yesterday 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, this 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.”