Libya attack graphically marks rise of fundamentalist Muslims

The new wild card in Arab and Muslim politics may be the hardline Salafi Muslim groups that have emerged from the Arab Spring.

Ibrahim Alaguri/AP
Libyans walk on the grounds of the gutted US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, on Sept. 12, 2012.

The deadly anti-US attack in Libya graphically marks the rise of fundamentalist Salafi Muslims in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – and the challenge it poses to US policy in the region.

But the violence that tore through the US consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, has also served to show the limited appeal of those tactics by prompting widespread condemnation, analysts say. Protesters also breached the US embassy walls in Cairo, angered by a deliberately provocative, anti-Islam film that appears to have been made by a Steve Klein, an anti-Islam activist who lives in California. Smaller protests also broke out in Tunisia today.

"One of the major features of the Arab uprisings is the emergence of ultraconservative Salafi groups," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics, contacted in Paris. "They are extremely hyper, extremely anti-American, extremely blinded by the sunshine of the open political atmosphere. The Salafis now are the wild card in Arab and Muslim politics, in Libya, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia. In Syria, they are ... becoming a major factor in the [antiregime] equation."

Still, in Libya there appears to be have been a mix of motives driving the consulate attack.

Journalists who visited the scene during the attacks told the BBC they heard frequent angry reference to the film.

Yet just hours earlier, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He confirmed the death of a senior Libyan member of Al Qaeda, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a US drone strike in Pakistan last June, and said: "His blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders."

"I would argue that a great deal of planning went into the [Libya] attack, they fired multiple missiles into the consulate, they are well known for their anti-American views," says Mr. Gerges of the Salafist militant group that carried out the attack.

Anger could spread

Anger over the film expressed in Benghazi and Cairo could also spread to Afghanistan. The Taliban – removed from the Arab uprisings, but fighting US-led NATO forces, and sharing the theological roots of the most conservative Salafis – called on Afghans to fight such insults.

"Since America declared its open war on Islam 11 years ago, it has repeatedly ... insulted the inviolable sanctums of Islam," the Taliban said in a statement.

It called on Afghan mujahideen to avenge the film by "dealing a heavy blow" to US forces, and called on religious scholars to "fully inform the masses about such barbaric acts of America ... and to prepare them for a lengthy struggle."

They may have received an unexpected boost from President Hamid Karzai, who also issued a statement condemning the film as an "insult to the greatest Prophet of Islam."

While noting that the film's producer and Florida pastor Terry Jones "represent a small radical minority," Mr. Karzai stopped short of telling Afghans not to protest or commit acts of violence.

In April last year, violent protests erupted in Afghanistan in response to Mr. Jones burning a Quran in Florida. The event passed largely unnoticed for almost two weeks, until Karzai made a statement to condemn it. An angry mob then overran a UN compound in northern Afghanistan; at least 22 died in nationwide protests.

A dilemma for the US

The violence in Libya and burst of anti-US sentiment deepens the Arab Spring dilemma for President Obama.

"I think that American foreign policy is going to become much more reluctant to provide the support that it is in Libya, and in Syria in particular," says Gerges, referring to the US support for Free Syrian Army rebels at the helm of a 19-month rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

The Libya attacks will "contribute to a general sense of Arab Spring fatigue that we've seen in the US," says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, contacted in Qatar.

"The Obama administration hasn't really laid out the rationale for why the US needs to play a major role in supporting the Arab Spring, but perhaps the events of yesterday will push Obama to further clarify policy," says Mr. Hamid. "I think Americans need to hear more of that because they are disillusioned, they want to disengage right now."

The violence was widely condemned across the region, and "many Libyans and Egyptians are disgusted at how this portrays them in the international community," says Hamid, noting that Ambassador Stevens was a key supporter of the revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi last year. "There's very little room for Libyan radicals to sell this to the wider public. And let's just recall that Libya is the only country in the Arab world where the US is relatively popular."

Still, the attack confirms the trend building over the past 1-1/2 years, the "rise of Salafi extremists who operate outside the legal and political arena, and they have their own rules," says Hamid. "It's been a problem in Tunisia, in Libya, and increasingly in Egypt as well, that with greater political freedoms Salafis have come out of the woodwork and have asserted themselves."

He distinguishes between mainstream Salafists in Egypt and now Tunisia who take part in the political process, and those who prefer violence.

"I think we are seeing an increasing divide between those two," adds Hamid. "But you are still going to have a small, influential fringe that still doesn't believe in democracy, that sees it as a sign of disbelief and infidelity."

And that group has found a close match in those in the US set out to make the film with an anti-Islam agenda. Mr. Klein, the apparent maker of the anti-Islam film that has generated such protest, said in his latest broadcast on "Wake Up America," a program he hosts, that "Western civilization is absolutely superior to Islam, period," and chuckled at the notion that any Muslims might be "good people...."

"You are talking about two fundamentalisms," says Gerges of the LSE. "Here you have a very tiny group, who don't speak for hardly anyone in the United States, providing ammunition for fundamentalist Islamist groups [which are] unwilling to make the distinction ... between the filmmaker and a few American idiots, and Americans as a whole."

In Afghanistan, Karzai said steps would be taken to stop Afghans from seeing the video. YouTube was temporarily blocked, but with only 18 percent of the country with access to reliable electricity and an illiteracy rate of 72 percent, few Afghans were likely to see the film. Still, newscasters are likely to describe it, and Afghans are likely to protest even if they don't see it.

"Affronts to Islam tend to draw even stronger reaction from Afghans than do incidents involving large civilian casualties or other violations of the laws of war," says Taylor Strickling, a law professor at the American University of Afghanistan. "Certainly we should expect Western institutions and the Afghan security apparatus will be on higher alert than usual in the coming days."

Tom Peter contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 

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