On the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt and U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya were attacked amidst protests over a trailer for a purported film entitled Innocence of Muslims. The film, first shown on June 23rd, was considered by protestors to depict the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a blasphemous manner. Reportedly made by a Jewish real estate developer named “Sam Bacile,” trailers for the film were posted to YouTube in July and the film was promoted via various internet sites before anti-U.S. protests erupted in reaction. The most serious attacks occurred in Libya, which followed shortly after the protests in Cairo. Both guns and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the assault that left 14 dead, including visiting U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, and 2 injured. The Washington Post reports:
The attack followed a violent protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over a low-budget anti-Muslim film made in the United States, and it initially appeared that the assault on the Benghazi consulate was another spontaneous response. But senior U.S. officials and Middle East analysts raised questions Wednesday about the motivation for the Benghazi attack, noting that it involved the use of a rocket-propelled grenade and followed an al-Qaeda call to avenge the death of a senior Libyan member of the terrorist network.
Libyan officials and a witness said the attackers took advantage of a protest over the film to launch their assault.
Stevens, 52, and the others appear to have been killed inside the temporary consulate, possibly by a rocket-propelled grenade, according to officials briefed on the assault.
On Wednesday, administration officials described a fast-moving assault on the Benghazi compound, which quickly overwhelmed Libyan guards and U.S. security forces, and separated the Americans from the ambassador they were supposed to protect. U.S. personnel lost touch with Stevens just minutes into the attack, about 10 p.m. Benghazi time. They didn’t see him again until his body was returned to U.S. custody, sometime around dawn.
The protests have only spread since September 11th, as similar demonstrations have spread to several countries across the Middle East and North Africa, causing several deaths thus far in Tunisia and Yemen. The events have spilled over into the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign, as Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, accused President Barack Obama of showing weakness in the face of these tumultuous events, as part of his general criticism of the Obama administration’s apologist tone in foreign policy, particularly as it applies to his actions in the Muslim world. The Economist, on the other hand, notes, that despite the attacks, the legacy of the Arab Spring is still trending in the right direction, and the U.S. should continue to play its current role in the Middle East:
FOR many Americans the killing of Christopher Stevens, their ambassador to Libya, this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from the Arab world. In a country where the West only last year helped depose a murderous tyrant, a Salafist mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Mr Stevens and three colleagues. The trigger for this murder, the riots in neighbouring Egypt and the storming of the American embassy in Yemen? A tacky amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad that the Obama administration had already condemned. Why on earth, many Americans are asking, should the United States try to police a region, when all it gets in return is mindless abuse, blame for things it cannot control, and mob violence?
…This is a seductive narrative—and no doubt it will play even better on the campaign trail after Mr Stevens’s death (see Lexington). But it is deeply wrong in both its analysis and its conclusions. Many parts of the Arab world are in fact heading in the right direction. And in the parts that are not, notably Syria, the United States is more needed than ever.
Others have suggested the protests were the result of the instability created by the Arab Spring, and not specifically Muslim in nature. Writing at Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch agrees with this sentiment, noting that “[w]e should not allow the actions of a radical fringe to define our views of an entire group.” However, he points out the very different reactions in Libya and Cairo:
In short, the response from Libya suggests a broad national rejection at both the governmental and societal level of the anti-American agitation. The leaders have said the right things and have done their part to quickly pre-empt a spiral of conflict and recrimination between Americans and Libyans. And the United States has in turn responded with a calm but firm response which unequivocally condemned the attacks but committed to continuing to cooperate with Libyans against a common challenge. And, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton both emphasized repeatedly in their remarks today, many Libyans came to the defense of the Americans at the consulate — exactly the right move, isolating and marginalizing the violent attackers rather than exaggerating and empowering their claims. And they will need it, as the attacks also clearly demonstrate Libya’s ongoing problems of state capacity — lack of adequate capability to ensure security, to disarm militias, or to police such outbursts.
In Egypt, on the other hand, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has been notably invisible. To this point, we have heard no statements from Egyptian government officials condemning the assault on the embassy, no expressions of concern or sympathy, no suggestion of any fault on their own side. The Muslim Brotherhood had previously been planning rallies against the notorious film, and at the time of this writing has not canceled them. Even when they finally issued a statement condemning the violence in Libya, they were not forthcoming on Cairo.
Government officials across the region have condemned the attacks, while simultaneously denouncing the highly inflammatory nature of the film. Since President Obama has promised to bring the perpetrators to justice, arrests have already been made in Libya, and some have called for the arrest of Sam Bacile as well.