Despite President Obama’s pledge that the violent assault on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens would not “break the bonds” between the U.S. and Libya, it would appear to have weakened them. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that U.S. diplomats are to be evacuated in the coming days. It was not clear whether a skeleton staff would remain, and the embassy could not be reached for comment.
Civil-society sources also say that the National Democratic Institute, an American nongovernmental organization funded by the U.S. Congress, has decided to decamp as well and to discontinue for the time being its long-term observation mission and its work helping to develop Libya’s political parties.
The news is likely to add to fears among progressives in the country and civil-society groups that Western nations will retreat from Libya, if only temporarily while officials try to work out how preplanned the attack that killed the ambassador was or whether it was purely the result of opportunism by Salafis.
“It is a very bad news,” says Ahlam Ben Tabon, who works at the NGO Foundation for the Future. “The government can’t protect Libya. This is a calamity, if the Americans go.”
The president of Libya’s newly installed General National Congress offered an apology today for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American diplomats, who were killed Tuesday night during a fierce assault by Salafis and Muslim extremists on the consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, and urged Western nations not to turn their back on Libya as it struggles to transition to democracy. “We offer our deepest condolences to the U.S. government, the American people, and the relatives of the Americans killed,” said Mohamed Magariaf.
His apology came as U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the “outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans.” Praising the diplomats for their “extraordinary service,” Obama also called for the U.S. to “now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward”—suggesting the president is not ready to give up on the Arab Spring or to walk away from the weak central authorities in Tripoli as they seek to wrest control of the country from armed militias and widespread lawlessness and to counter a growing Salafist challenge.
Obama assured Libyans publicly that the attack and the deaths of the diplomats would not result in the U.S. breaking with Tripoli. He said American and Libyan security men had fought side by side to defend the consulate. He lauded Stevens. “He worked tirelessly to support this young democracy.” Of all four who died he said: “They stood up for freedom and human dignity.”
U.S. officials concede that the Obama administration will face Republican criticism over its handling of the Arab Spring. The White House is also braced for a wave of disgust from Americans over the killing of the diplomats, including Stevens, a noted Arabist who was a key figure in securing Western support for rebels in their efforts to oust Col. Muammar Gaddafi. A U.S. official reached by phone in Washington, D.C., said Stevens’s death will “set back any greater aid we may have considered in support for the Syrian rebellion.”
The circumstances surrounding the death of the 52-year-old ambassador remained unclear as Obama issued his condemnation. Libyan officials gave conflicting reports, with some saying that he died of smoke inhalation in the consulate and others that he died as Salafis targeted him and his escorts and fired a rocket as they sought to reach safety after the initial attacks on the consulate. “The American ambassador and three staff members were killed when gunmen fired rockets in their direction,” a Libyan official in Benghazi told Reuters. The bodies were due to be flown today from Benghazi to Tripoli.
State Department officials named another of the dead diplomats as Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith, a father of two, but were withholding the names of the other two diplomats killed while they tried to contact their next of kin. Smith had been in the Foreign Service for 10 years.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted Wednesday that American-Libyan friendship would not be a casualty of the attack, arguing that it was the work of a “small and savage group,” not the people or the government of Libya. She acknowledged that for ordinary Americans, the deaths would be infuriating, and they would be asking themselves, “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we saved from destruction?” She said she asked herself the same questions, but that America must hold fast.
The California-born Stevens is only the sixth serving U.S. ambassador ever to be killed while on active duty and the first to be have fallen in 33 years as a result of a terrorist attack. The Benghazi assault involved dozens of gunmen from the Islamist Ansar al Sharia group as well as other militants and saw fierce clashes between them and U.S. guards and Libyan security units. Militants decided to attack the consulate in protest against an amateur anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims, produced by Israeli-Americans, which ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.
An eyewitness, Abdel Nushar, reached by phone in Benghazi, said members of Ansar al Sharia stormed out of their headquarters in Benghazi and urged others to follow them to the consulate. “They said they had to punish the Americans for insulting the prophet,” he said. A local producer for Al Jazeera, Suleiman Ed-Dressi, said that “they called themselves the Islamic law supporters. They came storming out of their garrison and called on people in the streets to join them.”
Armed with semiautomatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, gunmen shot at the building and threw handmade bombs into the compound. They eventually took over the building when Libyan security units and police withdrew under the intensity of the attack, according to Abdel-Moneim Al-Hurr, the Benghazi spokesman for Libya’s Supreme Security Committee.
With fears of a foreign evacuation clearly in their minds, both Prime Minister Abdurrahim Keib and Magariaf emphasized their disgust and horror at the attack, condemning the killings and arguing that they would do everything in their power to hunt down the perpetrators. Magariaf said all foreigners in the country are “under the protection of the state,” and he called on “all Libyans to stand united” in the face of those who would impede the revolution.
But Libyan leaders remained unclear and confusing about who they felt were responsible for the attacks, one minute blaming “remnants of the former regime” and the next Salafis. At one point Magariaf suggested that the attack was a “despicable act of revenge” for Sept. 11. In recent weeks Libyan officials, when faced by law-and-order challenges, have reflexively blamed former Gaddafi officials.
Libyan apologies for the consulate assault were undercut by other high-ranking officials who sought to suggest that the U.S. was at fault for not withdrawing their diplomats as a precaution when controversy started raging about the movie. “They are to blame simply for not withdrawing their personnel from the premises, despite the fact that there was a similar incident when [al Qaeda second in command and Libyan citizen] Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed. It was necessary that they take precautions. It was their fault that they did not take the necessary precautions,” said Wanis al-Sharif, the Libyan deputy interior minister.
Ironically, today was meant to have been a landmark day for the country’s fragile and violence-marked transition from autocracy to democracy with the announcement of who would be Libya’s first post-election prime minister after voting in the new Parliament. That voting is now due to go ahead this evening, but counterdemonstrations are scheduled tonight in the Libyan capital both to protest the Benghazi attack and against the movie ridiculing the prophet.