President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday to hunt down the killers of United States ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans during an assault on its mission in Benghazi, as suspicion grew that the diplomat was the victim of an organised attack by an Islamist group.
"Make no mistake: justice will be done," Obama said at the White House. He described the killing, the first of a US ambassador since 1979, as "outrageous and shocking".
Crucially, though, the president made it clear that the US would work alongside the Libyan government to track down those responsible.
One witness told the Guardian that a mob fired at least one rocket at the consulate building, then stormed it, setting everything ablaze. Stevens is understood to have died from smoke inhalation. Several Libyan security officers were also reported to have been killed in the attack.
The Libyan government expressed regret over the attack. The country's interim leader, Mohammed Magarief, apologised and called the killings "cowardly criminal acts" and part of a campaign "to impede our democratic experiment".
The FBI is being dispatched to Libya to help with the hunt and 50 marines will reinforce the Tripoli embassy. Two US warships were reportedly heading towards the Libyan coast on Wednesday night. US surveillance drones are being redeployed to search for suspects among alleged jihadist camps in eastern Libya.
Scale of the assault
US officials suspect the assault may have been planned to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Some officials drew attention to the scale of the assault – ostensibly over an anti-Muslim film – compared with an earlier protest in Cairo. US officials said that heavily armed men, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, took part in the attack on the Benghazi consulate, whereas in Egypt the crowd was unarmed.
Attention has also been drawn to an al-Qaeda video posted about a day before the attack in which the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called on Libyans to avenge the death of his Libyan deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in an American drone strike in June.
But as more details emerged other officials suggested the assault was more opportunistic than planned.
Congressman Mike Rogers, the head of the house intelligence committee, who is usually briefed by the intelligence agencies during a crisis, said the details were still fuzzy but it was "a well co-ordinated attack", one in which he could see the "signature of al-Qaeda" and a link to the 9/11 anniversary.
Mohammed El-Kish, a former official with the National Transitional Council that handed power to an elected Parliament last month, blamed the attack on hardline jihadists, as did the Quilliam Foundation think-tank in London, which tracks jihadist groups. The killings led to a political row between Obama and his Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney.
In what may turn out to be one of the defining moments in the race for the White House, Romney attempted to pin some of the blame on the Obama administration, accusing it of being an apologist for American values. It was a badly handled intervention that immediately backfired as former diplomats, foreign policy analysts and even fellow Republicans accused Romney of making political points with American corpses barely cold.
Stevens (52), a career diplomat since 1991, was a strong backer of the rebels and went into Benghazi at the height of the revolt aboard a cargo ship. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Reckless Nato intervention partly to blame for killings
The assassination in Benghazi of the United States ambassador to Libya is an appalling act – and one foreseen by his employers. On August 27, the state department warned US citizens against all but essential travel to Libya, painting a picture of a country beset by increasing instability and fraught with danger.
"The incidence of violent crime, especially carjacking and robbery, has become a serious problem. Political violence, including car bombings in Tripoli and assassinations of military officers and alleged former regime officials in Benghazi, has increased. Inter-militia conflict can erupt at any time or any place in the country," the state department said.
Exactly who is responsible for the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff members is unclear. Libyan officials blamed pro-Gaddafi loyalists linked to bombings in Tripoli. Salafists, ultra-conservative Muslims who besieged the Benghazi consulate overnight, seem to be the more likely culprits. They have mounted a string of recent attacks on Sufi shrines and are said to have been enraged by clips of a film on the internet that defames the prophet Muhammad.
Any number of other Libyan armed groups might have had a hand in the killings. But, in truth, responsibility may also be traced back, directly or indirectly, to those in London, Paris, Brussels and Washington who launched last year's Nato intervention in Libya with insouciant disregard for the consequences.
It was clear then, or should have been, that toppling Muammar Gaddafi was the easy bit. Preventing an Iraq-style implosion, or some form of Afghan anarchy, would be much harder.
Yet this is exactly what Stevens's death may presage. Once again, the Western powers have started a fire they cannot extinguish. A year after David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy jointly travelled to Libya to lay claim to a liberator's bogus laurels, the Libyan revolution they fanned and fuelled is in danger of degenerating into a chaotic, violent free-for-all.
Do not be misled by the fig leaf of this summer's national assembly polls. Post-Gaddafi Libya lacks viable national political leadership, a constitution, functioning institutions and, most importantly, security. Nationwide parliamentary elections are still a year away. The east-west divide is as problematic as ever. Political factions fight over the bones of the former regime, symbolised by the forthcoming trials of Gaddafi's son, Saif, and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi.
Effective central control, meanwhile, is largely absent. And into this vacuum have stepped armed groups – whether politically, religiously or financially inspired matters little – all claiming sectional suzerainty over the multitude of fractured fiefdoms that was, until Nato barged in, a unified state.
Research published in June by the Small Arms Survey suggested that the emergence and influence of armed groups challenging the national government and army was accelerating rapidly.
The survey identified four distinct types, including experienced revolutionary brigades, accounting for up to 85% of all weapons not controlled by the state. A power struggle was now under way between the Libyan army and these various groups and although some played a constructive role, others threatened the future of the Libyan state, the survey said. In Misrata, for example, in addition to about 30000 small arms, revolutionary brigades "control more than 820 tanks, dozens of heavy artillery pieces and more than 2300 vehicles equipped with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons". Misrata, the scene of some of the worst fighting last year, has become a state within a state.
In its weakened condition, politically and economically, Libya appears especially vulnerable to extremist ideology and foreign influence.
Stevens was a respected diplomat who was helping to hold Libya together. Perhaps it was always an impossible task.
But it was rendered all the harder by Western politicians who, just as in Iraq, jumped feet first into a complex situation without sufficient care or thought for the future. – Simon Tisdall © Guardian News & Media 2012