09.12.12

Riot After Anti-Islam Film: U.S. Ambassador to Libya Killed

Only two months ago, Chris Stevens wrote about how the atmosphere in Libya had changed for the better. People were smiling. Vivian Salama reports on the career diplomat killed in Benghazi.

America’s ambassador to Libya, a career diplomat who dedicated much of his life to the Middle East, has died in a rocket attack on the embassy amid violent protests over a U.S.-produced film deemed insulting to Islam. President Obama confirmed the “outrageous” deaths.

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United States ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other consulate personnel were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori, Reuters / Landov ; (inset) Ben Curtis, File / AP Photo)

Chris Stevens, who was appointed ambassador to Libya in May this year, was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack near the consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi late Tuesday night, as were three of his State Department colleagues, according to witnesses and various news reports. In one account, Libya security forces allegedly attacked protesters gathered outside the consulate Tuesday, causing them to clash violently.

Stevens, 52, was a native of Northern California, graduate of the University of California in Berkley, served in the Peace Corps, and taught English for two years in Morocco before joining the State Department. Prior to his tour in Libya, he was the director of the Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs. From 2007 to 2009 he served as deputy chief of mission in Tripoli, Libya. He also served as special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council from March 2011 to November 2011. As a member of the Foreign Service, he served in Jerusalem, Damascus, and Riyadh.

The New York Times reports a letter from Stevens to his friends, written only two months ago, after a reception in Tripoli. “Somehow our clever staff located a Libyan band that specializes in 1980s soft rock,” he wrote, “so I felt very much at home.”

He also wrote that the atmosphere in Libya had changed for the better. "People smile more and are much more open with foreigners," he wrote in a later email. "Let's hope it lasts!"

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “vicious behavior,” in a statement.  “We are heartbroken by this terrible loss,” Clinton said. A number of Libyans were also reportedly killed in the attacks.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Benghazi and Cairo Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, enraged over a little-known film reportedly produced by Israeli-American Sam Bacile. It is allegedly backed by a handful of ultraconservative Egyptian Christians and Florida Pastor Terry Jones, the controversial preacher whose threats to burn the Quran in 2010 sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan. The film’s trailer, available on YouTube in English and Arabic-dubbed versions, depicts a deranged, womanizing Prophet Muhammad facing a hypothetical trial. Any depiction of the prophet is a violation of Islamic beliefs. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Bacile is in hiding following the backlash to his film, but remained defiant that Islam is a "cancer."

In an introductory video released when he was appointed to Libya this year, he noted: “One of the things that impressed me when I was last in Libya was listening to the older people who had traveled and studied in the U.S. back when we had closer relations. Those days are back.”

Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf condemned the attacks and said he would work closely with American officials to boost security. Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur said on his Twitter account: “I condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere.”

In Cairo, Egyptian riot police surrounded the Embassy complex early Wednesday morning, after protesters bypassed heavy security, burned the American flag and scaled the walls of the fortresslike complex. Graffiti alongside the embassy walls reads: “Take care America, we have 1.5 billion bin Ladens” and “Khaybar, Khaybar ... Oh, Jews the army of Muhammed is coming.” (Khaybar refers to a fortress town inhabited by Jewish tribes in Saudi Arabia until its fall to Muslim forces in the seventh century).

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Bacile is in hiding following the backlash to his film, but remained defiant that Islam is a “cancer.”

On social media websites Facebook and Twitter, calls circulated Wednesday for a demonstration in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Benghazi, and in neighboring Algeria to denounce attacks against American government buildings in Libya and Egypt. "Let us properly represent the teachings of Islam," says one Facebook event page.

In a statement Wednesday, the State Department said it is “working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide.”

Libya has been praised for its ability to engage in free and fair elections and a somewhat peaceful transition since longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi was killed late last year. Since February 2011, the United States has provided $170 million in assistance, mostly in response to urgent humanitarian and security challenges in the immediate aftermath of the beginning of the conflict. The port city of Benghazi was an opposition stronghold during the Libyan uprising last year and was the hub for the transitional government prior to the fall of Qaddafi.

This was not the first attack on U.S. government offices in Libya this year.  The consulate in Benghazi was targeted in a bomb attack in June, although embassy personnel were not harmed. Britain's ambassador to Libya was in a convoy of cars attacked in the eastern city of Benghazi, a British embassy spokeswoman has said. That same month, the Britain's ambassador to Libya was in a convoy of cars near to the British consulate in Benghazi.