The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi Tuesday, just hours before the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was attacked over an American-made anti-Muslim movie.
But questions were immediately raised about the true identity of the filmmaker – who falsely claimed to be an Israeli Jew who obtained the financing for his film from 100 Jewish donors — and whether the movie actually sparked the rioting or was just used as a convenient excuse.
Some suggested that the Libyan attack was a reprisal for an airstrike Monday that killed al-Qaida’s second in command in Yemen, Saeed al-Shihri. The airstrike is believed to have been carried out by a U.S.-operated unmanned drone aircraft.
Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and two other Americans were killed during the attack on the consulate. One report said the ambassador was in the city, learned of the attack and went to the consulate to help the staff escape.
There were conflicting reports about their deaths. One report said Stevens and his driver were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as they tried to drive to a safer location. Two U.S. Marines who rushed to the car to retrieve Stevens’ body were then shot dead by Libyans storming the consulate grounds.
Another report said a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the consulate set the building ablaze and that the four died of smoke inhalation after they were separated from other staffers while trying to escape to the roof. One official was quoted as saying that there were several “valiant but unsuccessful” attempts to rescue the men.
Pictures of a man being carried through the streets of Libya were later posted on several Internet sites. They identified the man as Stevens. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying the attack on the consulate was by a “small and savage group, not the people or government of Libya. … Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety.”
But another report quoted a worker at the consulate as saying that the bodies of the four Americans were seen lying in the street hours after the attack.
Later Tuesday, Egyptian protesters in Cairo climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy, pulled down an American flag, ripped it and set it on fire. They replaced the flag with a black Islamist flag.
President Barack Obama said the violence was unjustified and vowed that “justice will be done.” He called Stevens a “courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.”
Clinton sent Stevens to Benghazi in 2011 to be the American conduit for rebel forces seeking to overthrow Libyan strongman Mohammar Kaddafy. Stevens, 52, who joined the State Department in 1991, was fluent in Arabic and French and previously served in Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. He was the seventh American ambassador killed in the line of duty.
“He arrived on a cargo ship in the port of Benghazi and began building our relationships with Libya’s revolutionaries,” Clinton said of Stevens. “He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to build a better Libya.”
She added that during the consulate attack, “Libyans stood and fought to defend our post; some were wounded.”
Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib later issued an apology “to the American people and the government, and also to the rest of the world [for the] cowardly, criminal act.”
U.S. officials on Wednesday said that about 50 U.S. Marines from a rapid reaction force were sent to Libya to help track down the killers and secure the consulate, which was badly damaged and looted.
The attacks follow the release online of an Arabic translation of a movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” directed by a man who called himself Sam Bacile. He claimed to be a 56-year-old California real-estate developer who had made the movie at a cost $5 million. He told the Associated Press that it is an Israeli Jew and that more than 100 Jewish donors financed his film. But further checks by other media found that there is no Israeli with the name Sam Bacile, and that the name is a pseudonym for a man who is not Israeli – and probably not Jewish.
The two-hour film, an excerpt of which is on YouTube, attacks the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, making him out to be a fraud.
The film was screened one time at a mostly empty movie theater in Hollywood, according to the AP.
“Bacile” supposedly went into hiding Tuesday night.
Clinton condemned the film, saying the U.S. “deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”