By Ned Parker, Reem Abdellatif and Glen Johnson
CAIRO — The deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American citizens when a group of armed men stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has cast a renewed focus on severe tensions roiling the North African nation since the fall of longtime leader Moammar Kadafi last year.
Residents who gathered in the eastern Libyan city to mourn the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens could not agree who had been behind the attack. But recent months have seen assassinations of security officers from the ousted Kadafi government and the destruction of minority Sufi Muslim shrines as the country’s newly elected government struggles to assert itself after decades of dictatorial rule. Western analysts have warned that radical Islamist groups are looking to exploit the vacuum, but Libya’s new rulers have been reluctant to crack down on anyone other than those who were associated with Kadafi.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Sean Kane, a political analyst who previously worked in Libya for the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. “While what happened yesterday is not at all representative of broader Libyan society, there has been an alarming trend of growing extremist militancy in the country over the last several months. A possible tipping point is being approached and if the problem is not faced up to soon it might be too late.”
In Benghazi, witnesses described how men, armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, barged into a crowd of protesters and started firing on the American facility before torching it.
The crowd, like one in Cairo, had gathered to demonstrate against an Internet video that mocked the prophet Mohammed.
In Benghazi, residents said a Facebook page had announced plans for the protest a day earlier. Some had learned about the video from Libyan students in the United States and then watched it online. Others simply witnessed images from Cairo on television and then saw that people were marching toward the U.S. consulate. Abdel Monem Monem, a former advisor to Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the opposition council that led Libya until this summer, said no more than 50 protesters were gathered late Tuesday night.
“It was normal. We were just showing [the Americans] not to insult our Prophet Mohammed,” Monem said.
There had been previous peaceful demonstrations outside the consulate, according to Monem.
Around 11:30 p.m., a group of armed men approached the compound, which is made up only of a villa with a high wall.
Sheik Mohamed Al Oraibi, a young Salafist preacher involved in the protest, said he watched as a band of “religious extremists” with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades began to fire on the consulate walls before entering the small compound and setting it on fire.
“There were about 20 different cars that approached the protest at the embassy, they are not affiliated with any specific political group. Their cars had Sharia-imposing slogans. These are extremist groups working independently,” Oraibi said. “I don’t believe they are related to Al Qaeda, but I believe they are associated with the previous regime and they have hopes that Libya’s revolution would fail. They want to cause instability.”
He said they fired “ridiculous amounts of gunshots.”
“When the embassy security officials saw them approach with guns, the security officials fired in the air to try and disperse them, then they fired back at the embassy.”
Another eyewitness, Jamila Fallad, fled to a nearby restaurant amid the gunfire. “We don’t know who the militia was. They all [had] Islamic beards and Kalashnikovs,” Fallad said. “I met him [Stevens] in the revolution. I am so sorry for his death. He was a very good man. We need to hold our government to account for this.”