The Pentagon has dispatched a team of 50 elite US troops to help bolster the security of American personnel in Libya, according to defense officials.
The Department of Defense stands “ready to respond” with military measures as directed by the president, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity during a background briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
The US Marine Corps unit, known as the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST), is specially trained to protect – and when necessary, extract – US citizens, as they did when they were sent to bring home US citizens in Liberia in 2003 and in Haiti in 2004.
In the wake of the death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed when armed militants overran the consulate in Libya’s second largest city, President Obama vowed to step up security at US diplomatic posts around the world.
It appears as if the consulate in Benghazi was not guarded by Marines, according to a US military officer who was not authorized to speak to the press, but rather local Libyan security forces.
Security in Benghazi included a local guard force, a physical perimeter barrier, and US regional security officers, said a second senior administration official who spoke during the Wednesday background briefing.
Mr. Obama praised these Libyan security personnel who “fought back against the attackers alongside Americans,” he said, adding that “Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety,” and carried Ambassador Stevens’s body to the hospital before learning that he had died.
“One of the local militias who is friendly to the embassy came to assist as well, and I think that really speaks to the relationship we have built with Libya,” added the second senior administration official.
Even so, the dispatch of the US Marines’ FAST Team is an acknowledgement that host nations in the region may not be up to the task of protecting US embassies.
In Egypt this week, local police did little to stop protesters from overwhelming the US embassy in Cairo. Thousands descended on the compound, spray-painting the walls and then scaling them.
Crowds were able to reach the embassy’s flagpole, where they pulled down the American standard and set it on fire before hoisting another flag that read, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”
The security at US embassies in the region is being particularly scrutinized with concerns that the attack on the Libyan consulate may not have been a crowd run amok, but rather a planned attack by religious extremists that had been hatched well before the release of a video that unflatteringly portrayed the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
“It was clearly a complex attack – we’re going to have to do a full investigation,” said the senior administration official during the background briefing.
“We did review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of Sept. 11, and at that time there was no information and no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured.”
Initial reports indicated that Stevens died when the car he was traveling in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Subsequent reports say that Stevens died of severe asphyxiation sustained in an embassy fire started by grenades after a Libyan doctor tried for 90 minutes to revive him, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“We frankly don’t know” how Stevens got to the hospital, the senior administration official said.
US Marine FAST Teams are stationed in the US and in other locations around the world, including Spain, Bahrain, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Pentagon officials say the team is being dispatched from Europe.
There are also three Navy warships in the vicinity of Libya. Defense officials say there are no current plans to move any of them to bolster security in the region.