US ambassador to Libya pays the ultimate price of religious madness

The headquarters of the US State Department has a marble wall of honour with the names of diplomats who died in the line of duty. Four more names will be added to that wall after the US ambassador to Libya and three other diplomats were killed in a Benghazi attack. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

A totally forgettable amateur film, The Innocence of Muslims, was made recently by the virtually unknown filmmaker Sam Bacile, operating in association with the expatriate Egyptian Coptic Christian activist, Morris Sadek. It had also recently come to the attention of Florida-based evangelical Quran-burning minister Terry Jones and he had apparently begun to promote this film as well. Bacile is an Israeli-American property developer who apparently was backed financially by a group of Jewish investors interested in promoting this film for who-knows-whatever reasons.

In the wake of the film’s appearance on social media websites, newly equipped with Arabic subtitles, the inevitable anger about its particularly crude portrayal of the Prophet and his teachings erupted. Mobs attacked the American Embassy in Cairo and the Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the evening of 11 September. A wicked irony of that date. 

Describing the lead up to the demonstrations, The New York Times wrote, “A scene from the film — in which an actor playing a buffoonish caricature of the prophet Muhammad calls a donkey ‘the first Muslim animal’ — was broadcast on the Egyptian television channel Al-Nas by the host Sheikh Khaled Abdalla.” The paper went on to describe initial fog of information about the origins of the film, saying the confusion “was so general that one group of fundamentalist Muslims was ‘calling for another huge protest at the embassy of Netherlands, demanding its closure because the Dutch government is producing an insult film against Islam.’ ” 

During the evening’s violent demonstrations in Cairo, protestors pulled down the US flag and replaced it with a black banner inscribed with an Islamic religious slogan. But there was worse to come. In Libya, someone apparently fired a rocket into the US Consulate building. Libya has been virtually awash with high-powered personal weaponry ever since Gaddafi’s power was broken and his military abandoned stockpiles and stores of arms around the country. 

According to the BBC, initial reports indicated that a militia known as Ansar al-Sharia was involved in the attack, but this group has denied the claim. And according to the AP, some protesters were saying, “Both Muslims and Christians are participating in this protest against this offence to Islam.” Regardless of the demographics of the protesters, at least four people were killed in the destruction, fire and smoke in Benghazi – including the American Ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens. Stevens was a career foreign service officer, a specialist on the Arab world, a veteran of service in Libya and a vigorous proponent of building a deeper relationship with post-Gaddafi Libya and its people. 

Following initial reactions in Washington on Wednesday, Obama administration officials said the attack in Libya may actually have been pre-planned. Officials have been closely looking at the differences in the Benghazi and Cairo attacks, and the latest reports said experts now believe that while the Cairo attack appeared to have been a spontaneous event by unarmed mobs angered by Bacile’s anti-Islam video, the attackers in Benghazi were well armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

While the analysts’ judgment remained inconclusive, sources said there were indications an organised group was either waiting for a chance to make opportunistic use of protests over the video or might have ginned up the protest to provide protective cover for a preplanned attack. 

In the wake of these two violent attacks, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a personal statement that read, “It is with profound sadness that I share the news of the death of four American personnel in Benghazi, Libya yesterday…. Our hearts go out to all their families and colleagues. 

“A 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Stevens died last night from injuries he sustained in the attack on our office in Benghazi.  

“I had the privilege of swearing in Chris for his post in Libya only a few months ago.  He spoke eloquently about his passion for service, for diplomacy and for the Libyan people.  This assignment was only the latest in his more than two decades of dedication to advancing closer ties with the people of the Middle East and North Africa which began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.  As the conflict in Libya unfolded, Chris was one of the first Americans on the ground in Benghazi.  He risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation. He spent every day since helping to finish the work that he started.  Chris was committed to advancing America’s values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger…”

President Obama’s office announced that he strongly condemned “the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens…. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives…. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants…. The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward.” By afternoon South African time, Libyan officials had joined in forcibly condemning the deaths. 

Inevitably too, presidential election politics entered this arena as well. An early note from the American Embassy in Cairo denouncing the film and mob violence – but apparently before the attack on the Benghazi mission had happened – led presidential candidate Mitt Romney to jump the gun and chastise the Obama administration for supposedly knuckling under to Islamic fundamentalists and sending “mixed signals in responding to events”. Romney has stood fast on his early statement that the Cairo statement was “akin to apology” and a “severe miscalculation.”

Stevens, of course, is not the first US ambassador to be killed in the line of duty. Ambassadors John Gordon Mein (Guatemala, 1968), Cleo Noel, Jr. (Sudan, 1973), Rodger Davies (Cyprus, 1974), Francis Meloy, Jr. (Lebanon, 1976), and Adolph Dubs (Afghanistan, 1979) were all killed in guerrilla or terrorist attacks – with Dubs’ death coming during a kidnapping effort. Ambassador Arnold Raphel died in a mysterious airplane crash while travelling with Pakistani president Zia in 1988, and Leonard Steinhart died in a plane crash in 1950 over Canada. 

More than 100 US diplomats have been killed in the course of their work – and well over 100 more have died from disasters and other natural causes since the country began sending official representatives abroad. Being a diplomat has never been a life in a danger-free zone, despite disparaging remarks from those who call diplomats “striped pants-wearing cookie pushers” – an allusion to the formal garb last seen in the closets of most diplomats more than a half century ago.

Watching these events unfold on international news channels and getting updates via the Internet and in phone calls from friends and from former colleagues, it may have been inevitable that this writer began to recall how things had been in the wake of the hostage taking in the American Embassy in Tehran back in 1980. At the time, the Tehran siege and hostage taking seemed to be an almost unprecedented escalation of violence against diplomats by the inhabitants of a host nation – and the lapsing of the host country’s international responsibility to protect foreign representatives in its country, regardless of how low a bilateral relationship may have fallen. 

At that time, this writer was serving in Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya. Indonesia has the world’s largest Islamic population, although the government itself has remained avowedly secular. Regardless, American officials tasked with the securing diplomatic missions began to pay particularly close attention to the level of preparedness in places like Indonesia, in the event of something – or anything. 

However, our little diplomatic outpost had a modest gate and fence, in keeping with the rest of its suburban neighbourhood, and the US cultural centre was virtually open to the world. People came and went freely for English lessons, film showings, using the library and attending evening lectures and concerts. 

Once the US embassy in Tehran had been occupied, though, we did what was possible to adjust to a new reality. We winnowed down classified files to just a handful of folders and helped organize things so the consulate’s modest communications gear was secured behind several sturdy, locked doors.

One day, this writer received a laconic summons to show up for “drills.” Drills? First up was a crash course in hauling the consulate’s stash of classified documents and communications gear to a rooftop duck blind where we took turns learning to load an improvised incinerator and then set fire to its contents. The result was an impressive cloud of choking black smoke that billowed up into the sky – letting anyone who was not yet aware of the consulate’s location a way to fix it permanently in memory. 

Then we learned that our task, after setting fire to things, was to clamber down from the roof, find the flap to a small tunnel like an oversized cat door, and practice scurrying through that tunnel and on into the fetid, stagnant canal behind the building so as to escape the putative mob when things went really bad. But looking at that thick, greenish, oily water prompted thoughts instead of taking one’s chances with the mob rather than a range of still-to-be discovered tropical diseases undoubtedly lurking in the water. But there was more.

The next morning, we drove in convoy to an Indonesian police firing range to practice defending ourselves. In front of us was arrayed a veritable arsenal – where did these come from, one wondered. There were pistols, rifles, shotguns and a tear gas grenade launcher the kind of which the writer had last held in riot control training in the army. Ultimately it was never clear if we were being prepared to defend the building, our persons, or our sacred honour – but perhaps such a subtle distinction never mattered. The Indonesian population seemed particularly unwilling to attack Americans, preferring to focus on things closer to home. When civil unrest did finally happen, it took the form of attacks on the local ethnic Chinese population instead.

But just as clearly, the hostage taking in Iran had truly become a fault line. In all that has followed since – the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya before 9/11 – physical security has become the sine qua non of embassy planning and management. Diplomatic security efforts since Tehran have meant embassies have been moved to new locations back behind high walls, wide setbacks from busy streets, relocations to secluded neighbourhoods and increasingly stringent access controls – as well as stricter security regimens regulating the movements of US diplomats. 

Sadly, these, in turn, have just made it that much harder for diplomats to do what they are supposed to do – get to know a country, its people and their hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares. And unfortunately, all these security precautions have not prevented bombings or – this time around – the sacking of a mission and an attack by a mob inflamed by a rumour and armed with a rocket launcher.

This is inevitably going to force a new level of introspection among American policy makers and diplomats as to what happens now for America in the countries of the Arab Spring. Welcome to a world where a wacko can use the Internet’s social media capabilities to drive a mob to carry out an attack like this one. And now a special detachment of Marines is reported en route to Libya to help secure the embassy and consulate even more thoroughly than they were before. DM

Read more: 

  • “Diplomats in Harm’s Way,” US website 
  •  “US confirms its Libya ambassador killed in Benghazi,” on the BBC
  • “U.S. Suspects Libya Attack Was Planned,” on the New York Times
  • “Obscure Film Mocking Muslim Prophet Sparks Anti-U.S. Protests in Egypt and Libya,” on The New York Times
  • “Anti-Islam filmmaker in hiding after deadly protests in Egypt, Libya; blames lax security,” on the Washington Post

Photo: A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012. An American staff member of the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has died following fierce clashes at the compound, Libyan security sources said on Wednesday. Armed gunmen attacked the compound on Tuesday evening, clashing with Libyan security forces before the latter withdrew as they came under heavy fire. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori 


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