U.S. and Libyan officials launched investigations Wednesday into a deadly nighttime attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, trying to determine whether it was a premeditated assault by Muslim militants or a mob enraged by a U.S.-produced film that derides Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The Obama administration put the entire U.S. diplomatic corps on alert, with increased security at embassies across the globe, in response to the attack, which occurred on the same day that Islamist protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. It was also the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Libyan officials vowed to bring justice to the militants who carried out the assault in Benghazi and denounced the attack as “barbaric.” In Washington, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement condemning “in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack.”
But the assaults also became a political issue Wednesday, with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticizing the administration for not having an aggressive posture in its response to the violence in Libya and Egypt. Mr. Obama retaliated, telling CBS News that Mr. Romney “seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
Top Obama administration officials said they were still struggling late Wednesday to ascertain a clear timeline of how the events unfolded in Cairo and Benghazi.
“We are still here today operating within the confusion of first reports,” said one senior administration official in reference to the Libya attack.
The official said that Mr. Stevens, 52, had remained holed up in the consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi for several hours while it was stormed by armed militants, who set fire to the facility shortly after 10 p.m. there.
U.S. and Libyan security forces eventually regained control of the building about 2 a.m. Wednesday, but only after a lengthy firefight with militants, at least 10 of whom were reported killed.
Sometime before or after U.S. and Libyan forces had regained control of the building, said one of the officials, “We believe Ambassador Stephens was taken out of the building and to a hospital in Benghazi.”
His body later was returned to U.S. personnel at the Benghazi airport, officials said.
“This was clearly a complex attack,” a senior administration official said. “It’s too early to say who they were.”
A plot by al Qaeda?
Speculation surged Wednesday through Washington’s foreign policy and diplomatic communities about whether the attack in Benghazi was the result of a long-planned attack by a terrorist group, perhaps with al Qaeda ties.
Officials at the White House and the State Department offered few details of their investigation.
But in telephone interviews with The Washington Times, several residents in Benghazi said there had been two distinctly different groups involved in the assault on the U.S. diplomatic post.
The residents described a scene that began as a relatively peaceful demonstration against a film produced in the United States that had been deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.
The situation did not turn violent until a group of heavily armed militants showed up and “hijacked” the protest, the residents said. The original group of protesters was joined by a separate group of men armed with rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.
U.S. officials would not confirm or deny those reports.
“We frankly don’t have a full picture of what may have been going on outside the compound walls before the firing began,” said one senior Obama administration official.
Tuesday’s incidents in Libya and in Egypt — where protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy, ripped down the American flag and replaced it with one commonly flown by al Qaeda — are thought to have been provoked by “Innocence of Muslims,” a two-hour, U.S.-produced film that many deemed derogatory of Muhammad. Arabic-dubbed portions of the English-language film recently appeared on the social-media website YouTube.
But the assaults coincided with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee raised the possibility that the developments in Libya and Egypt were connected to al Qaeda.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said the attacks “have the markings of revenge by al Qaeda.” He said they could be connected to the killing in June of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top leader of the terrorist network.
In a 42-minute video Tuesday, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden, called on followers to exact revenge for the U.S. drone attack in Pakistan that killed al-Libi.
In the Cairo attack, Islamist demonstrators scaled the U.S. Embassy compound’s walls, tore down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag bearing the Islamic inscription: “There is no God but Allah.”
While no one was killed in the storming, critics asserted that the Obama administration botched its response to the situation by moving too slowly in denouncing the actions of the protesters.
Specifically, Mr. Romney homed in on an initial statement that had appeared Tuesday on the U.S. Embassy’s website, in which U.S. officials appeared to apologize for the Muhammad film.
While the statement did not specifically mention the film, it said, “The United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
The statement was stripped from the website by late Tuesday, and the Obama administration has since disavowed it. A senior administration official Wednesday said that it had been posted by embassy officials long before the protests in Cairo began and that it had not been cleared through Washington first.
Such explanations did little to dampen Mr. Romney’s criticism that it was a sign of the Obama administration’s weak posture in the Middle East.
“The administration was wrong to stand by a statement that sympathized with those who breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions,” Mr. Romney told reporters during a campaign stop in Jacksonville, Fla. “It’s never too late to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”
Mr. Obama responded in his CBS interview that there is a “broader lessen to be learned” from the incident.
“As president, one of the things I’ve learned is, you can’t do that,” he said. “That, you know, it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts. And that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them.”
‘Cannot happen again’
Meanwhile, the government of Libya apologized Wednesday, calling the attack on the U.S. post in its country “cowardly” and vowing to bring the attackers to justice.
Libya’s ambassador to Washington, Ali Aujali, on Wednesday said the killing of Mr. Stevens was a great loss for Libya. He called Mr. Stevens a friend and a great diplomat, and said two had played tennis together.
“He was the right man for the right position at the right time,” Mr. Aujali said.
Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur also condemned the “barbaric acts.”
“This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere,” he said.
“There is never any justification for this type of action,” he added. “There must and will be consequences. Those who were involved at all levels must be found and punished.”
Mr. Abushagur said the Libyan revolution was not complete just because longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s regime had been toppled.
“Our revolution will be complete when our state institutions are strong, when heavy arms are in the hands of only the government and when our streets are safe to all — both to Libyans and to our honored guests,” he said.
“The government cannot do this alone. I call on all true Libyans to hand in their weapons, and to work together to make a better Libya for all,” he added. “This kind of shameful behavior — mobs using force on their own accord — cannot happen again, no matter the target or motivation.”
The Egyptian government — headed by President Mohammed Morsi, a key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood — has been less willing to embrace an apologetic tone toward the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil called the incident unacceptable and urged for “self-restraint” among Egyptians angered by the film.
In a separate statement, however, Mr. Morsi condemned the film and ordered the Egyptian Embassy in Washington to take appropriate legal measures against those who produced it.
Amateur film, filmmaker
The film was written, directed and produced by Sam Bacile, a real estate developer from Southern California.
The producer has told the Associated Press that he is an Israeli Jew and a U.S. citizen.
But Israeli officials, who sought to distance Israel from the film Wednesday, said they had not heard of Mr. Bacile, and there was no record of him being a citizen, the news agency reported.
Separately, the film was being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the U.S.
Mr. Bacile, who had evidently gone into hiding Wednesday somewhere in the U.S., told the AP that he had not anticipated such a furious reaction but remained defiant. He said he thinks the movie will expose what he calls Islam’s flaws to the world.
In Washington, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton met with a crowd of several hundred State Department employees gathered solemnly in the courtyard of the department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters in a scene of mourning for Mr. Stevens.
He is the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979, when armed militants kidnapped and killed Adolph “Spike” Dubs, then-ambassador to Afghanistan. Previous ambassadors were killed in Guatemala, Sudan, Cyprus and Lebanon — all between 1968 and 1976.
“Like Chris, Sean was one of our best,” she said.
The identities of the two others killed, along with those who were injured, were being withheld because their families had not yet been informed of their deaths.
• Ashish Kumar Sen, David Boyer, Seth McLaughlin, Shaun Waterman, Susan Crabtree and Rowan Scarborough contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.