A group of armed men attacked the U.S. Consulate late Sept. 11 in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed Sept. 12 that four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack. According to media reports, the consulate officials were killed when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at their car as they were leaving the building.
Purportedly conducted in response to an anti-Islamic video made in the United States, the attack may herald further unrest among Arabs unhappy with the video's contents. Tripoli's response to the attack — and how the central authority handles Islamists in such strongholds as Benghazi — will influence U.S.-Libya ties.
Some 20 armed men raided and set fire to the U.S. consulate. After local security forces reportedly fled, the assailants were seen shooting in the air before making their way into the facility, which reportedly was occupied by 10 consulate employees. Gunshots and explosions were heard, according to several reports.
Sept. 11 Attack on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi
Libyan officials said the attackers then staged another raid, prompting the U.S. ambassador to try to escape. As he fled the attack with three other staff members, Stevens' vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from an area nearby. A picture purportedly depicting the ambassador is being circulated on the Internet. The picture shows a dead Caucasian man being carried by a group of men.
Anger over a film made in the United States insulting the Prophet Muhammad reportedly triggered the assault. A trailer of the movie has been posted on YouTube and translated into Arabic. The film reportedly was filmed by an Israeli-American director and supported by vocal Florida-based pastor Terry Jones. The Cairo and Benghazi incidents took place on the anniversary of Sept. 11, the day Jones released the video under his sponsorship to mark what he calls "International Judge Muhammad Day."
The video may trigger similar incidents of unrest. Already unrest appears to be spreading to cities in Tunisia and Algeria. In fact, the attack took place only hours after a Salafist-led protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that drew around 2,000 people. The video triggered outrage among Salafists throughout the Arab world, so it is no surprise that this would also manifest itself in Benghazi, a stronghold of Islamist militants that presents a security threat to transnational facilities and local officials. Whereas the protest in Cairo was large and meant to show vocal opposition, the Benghazi attack involved a small number of assailants but caused considerable damage and deaths.
The attack will raise several questions for the new government in Tripoli and for the U.S.-Libya relationship. Chief among these will be just how can the central authority contain the jihadist presence in Benghazi and surrounding areas and how those efforts — or lack thereof — will shape U.S.-Libya ties moving forward.