A Perfect Storm for Turmoil

September 13, 2012

An assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

Ambassador Chris Stevens

There are differing reports on the timeline of what happened and why. What is known is that armed militia joined a protest outside the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Various militia brought automatic weapons, RPGs, and handmade bombs.

Libyan security forces originally blocked the road towards the Consulate in order to protect the Ambassador and his staff, but then security forces withdrew as the attacks intensified.

There has been a security vacuum in Libya since the Arab Spring ended The 42-year rule of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Militias now roam around the country unchecked and unfettered. Hundreds of people may make up a single militia while another militia may have its membership number as few as ten.

The attack in Libya came hours after an Egyptian mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the U.S. flag. 

The Egyptian police presence at the American Embassy in Cairo was large, but police did nothing to deter the protesters from escalating their demonstration into violence and vandalism. 

At the heart of these mob demonstrations was a trailer for an anti-Islamic film that was produced a year ago (in English), but has recently been dubbed into Arabic and placed on Youtube.

The film, The Innocence of Muslims, was produced in the United States and has been seen mostly via a trailer on the web.

Authorities in Afghanistan have gone so far as to shutdown access to YouTube “indefinitely” to keep Afghans from seeing the film they say insults the Prophet Mohammad.

When the film was translated into Arabic, it was covered by Egyptian television news. However, it was not talked about on Libyan TV. The online rumor mill in Libya kicked in, and people made all kinds of claims about what the film was and who was watching it. The apparent assumption of the mob that attacked the U.S. Consulate in Libya was that this film was being broadcast widely on American television for the anniversary of September 11th.

Protest organizers in Benghazi were attempting to mimic the earlier protest in Egypt.

However, al-Qaeda elements in Benghazi may have stoked and inflamed the mob.

Al-Qaeda has been looking to revenge the death of their second-in-command who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in June. Hassan Mohammed Qaid, also known as al-Libi (The Libyan), was killed in a U.S. drone strike in northwest Pakistan. His death has widely been considered the biggest setback to al-Qaeda since the death of Osama bin Laden. The anniversary of 9-11 would have been seen as the perfect timing for a revenge strike.

That is why the event in Benghazi created the perfect storm. The crazed mob afforded al-Qaeda terrorists, who may have already been targeting the U.S. Consulate, the chaos they needed to enact a durable attack and then cover their tracks.

There is evidence that this attack was well-coordinated and planned in advance.

A Benghazi safe house used by U.S. consulate staff members on their way to an airport came under what has been characterized as a sustained and accurate attack. 

Additionally, al-Qaeda released a 9/11 Anniversary Video. The organization’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, claims in the video (posted on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks) that his warriors “defeated America in Iraq.” The 57-minute video, titled “Truth has Come and Falsehood has Perished,” included old footage of bin Laden criticizing America and the West. The video makes the claim that the United States is at war with Islam. This claim was later repeated by members of the mobs in Cairo and Benghazi.

As of earlier today, the violence has now spread to Yemen. Chanting “death to America,” Yemeni protesters broke through security forces and marched toward the American embassy. While protesters reportedly got through the main gate, they were not able to enter the embassy building itself.

Yemeni news agencies report that U.S. embassy staff had already been evacuated by the time violence broke out.

The political spectrum of the Middle East is changing rapidly, and trying to understand it is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary foreign policy and security analysis.

Chris Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and was the first U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance, which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. He was named ambassador earlier this year. He was 52 years-old.

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