The killings of the US ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi Tuesday underscore how anti-authoritarian revolutions across the Arab world have unleashed extremist Islamist forces violently opposed to America and its ideals.
“The big question for the United States, and it’s only been made more urgent by these events, is how to adjust to a world where [moderate Muslim] governments have paved the way for more extremist elements to wield their influence,” says Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. “It’s not a good dynamic, but it’s not going away and has to be addressed.”
The American ambassador, Chris Stevens, was killed in the same city of eastern Libya where he had set up shop as the US envoy to the Libyan rebels as they fought to oust America’s longtime nemesis, strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans were killed when a mob infuriated by an anti-Islam video made in the US stormed the Benghazi mission and burned it to the ground.
When Stevens was sworn into his post earlier this year, he spoke passionately of the job that lay ahead of building a solid bond between the US and the new Libya that had emerged from the successful revolution against Mr. Qaddafi.
But the fall of Qaddafi’s iron-fisted regime also set free small but growing bands of Islamist extremists who were ready to take advantage of the new freedoms and the slackened security restrictions made possible by the change of government.
Already during the fighting against Qaddafi, the US was concerned about the presence in Libya and across North Africa of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. But Tuesday’s attack appears to have been instigated by another organization, Ansar al-Sharia, whose followers adhere to the extremely conservative Salafi movement that rejects Western influence and demands a return to strict Muslim practices of past centuries.
Salafi forces appeared to be behind Tuesday’s violent protests at the US Embassy in Cairo as well as the Benghazi attack. The armed mobs were expressing their fury over an amateurish anti-Islamic video that denigrates the prophet Mohammed. The video was made last year in California by someone claiming to be an Israeli-American real estate developer.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden Wednesday, President Obama eulogized the four lost Americans as exemplary agents of “freedom and human dignity,” even as he insisted that “no acts of terrorism will ever … eclipse the light of the values we stand for.”
The US government is working with the Libyan authorities to “bring to justice” the perpetrators of the deadly attack, Mr. Obama said, adding, “Make no mistake: Justice will be done.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stood with Obama for the statement, reported earlier that in addition to Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith was killed in the attack. The names of the other two Americans killed were not immediately released.
Obama also insisted in his statement that “this attack will not break the bonds between the United States of America and Libya,” but it is hard to see how it won’t affect US relations with Libya, the Arab Spring countries, and the wider Muslim world.
The anti-American protests and deadly assault on the Benghazi consulate occurred on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as Obama noted, saying Tuesday was “already a painful day” for Americans even before the events in Egypt and Libya.
The reminder of Islamist extremists’ hatred for America will only darken the clouds that many Americans already saw building over the countries of the Arab Spring. The events will likely feed doubts about Egypt and the intentions of its new president, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Morsi will make a White House visit later this month, and the threat of Islamic extremism – and how Morsi plans to address it – will now rise higher on the agenda.
The death of a US ambassador in a country he played a part in liberating will very likely reinforce the Obama administration’s reservations about the disparate rebel forces fighting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. One reason the US has not officially recognized the opposition forces arrayed against the Assad regime is lingering doubt about the degree to which extremist Islamist forces, including Al Qaeda, are involved in the anti-Assad fight.
Libya’s deputy prime minister, Mustafa Abushagour, condemned Stevens’ killing as “an attack on America, Libya, and the free world,” but WINEP’s Mr. Clawson says he doubts those reassuring words will be backed up by action.
Libya’s new authorities did nothing to stop violence earlier this year directed against the country’s moderate Sufi sect by Muslim extremists, he notes, much as attacks on manifestations of Western influence in Tunisia have gone unpunished.
“If the Libyan authorities do nothing when those under attack are Libyans,” Clawson says, why should we expect that they will when the attacks are against us?”