TRIPOLI, Libya —
The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Ambassador Chris Stevens, 52, died as he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff as the building came under attack by a mob firing machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. He was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
President Barack Obama ordered increased security to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel around world.
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi,” Obama said, adding the four Americans “exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe.”
The attack in Libya came hours after Egyptian protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulling down the American flag and temporarily replacing it with a black Islamic banner.
The brazen assaults — the first on U.S. diplomatic facilities in either country — underscored the lawlessness that has taken hold in both Egypt and Libya after revolutions ousted their autocratic secular regimes and upended the tightly controlled police state in both countries. Islamists — long repressed under the previous regimes — have emerged as a powerful force but new governments in both nations are struggling to achieve stability.
Egypt’s police, a onetime hated force blamed for massive human rights abuses, have yet to fully take back the streets after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. On Tuesday, riot police stood by the embassy’s walls but continued to allow protesters to climb them for several hours.
The uproar over the film also poses a new test for Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who has yet to condemn the riot outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo or say anything about the offending film. The protest was by mostly ultraconservative Islamists.
The film was produced by a California filmmaker who identifies himself as both American and Israeli. The film was being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States. Excerpts from the film dubbed into Arabic were posted on YouTube.
Ultraconservative Islamists also were suspected of being behind the Benghazi attack. Advocating a strict interpretation of Islam, they have bulldozed Sufi shrines and mosques that house tombs in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and other cities, including ancient sites dating back to 5,000 years ago.
Heavily armed, ultraconservative groups like Ansar al-Shariah, or Supporters of Shariah, have claimed responsibility for the attacks on the shrines, declaring Sufi practices as “heretical.”
Libya has been also hit by a series of recent attacks that served as evidence of the deep and persistent security vacuum in the country after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, which was ousted by rebels backed by a NATO air campaign. Many Libyans believe that unrest in their country is in part the work of Gadhafi’s loyalists who want to undermine efforts to rebuild the country after last year’s ruinous civil war.
Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and had already served two tours in Libya, including running the office in Benghazi during the revolt against Gadhafi. He was confirmed as ambassador to Libya by the Senate earlier this year.
Before Tuesday, five U.S. ambassadors had been killed in the line of duty, the last being Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan in 1979, according to the State Department historian’s office.
Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any fashion, much less in an insulting way. The 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper triggered riots in many Muslim countries.
A 14-minute trailer of the movie that sparked the protests, posted on the website YouTube in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
The website’s guidelines call for removing videos that include a threat of violence, but not those that only express opinions. YouTube’s practice is not to comment on specific videos.
Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew and who said he produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film, “Innocence of Muslims,” said he had not anticipated such a furious reaction.
Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, Bacile, who went into hiding Tuesday, remained defiant, saying Islam is a cancer and that he intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.
Bacile said he believes the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam’s flaws to the world. “Islam is a cancer, period,” he repeatedly said in a solemn, accented tone.
Israel, however, sought to distance itself from Bacile.
“It’s obvious we’ll have to be vigilant. Anything he did or said has nothing to do whatsoever with Israel. He may claim what he wants. This was not done with or for or through Israel.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said on Wednesday.