In the aftermath of a fatal attack against Americans in the Libyan city of Benghazi, U.S. and Libyan officials alike are scrambling to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. Now, emerging details indicate that this attack may be the work of a militant Salafist group.
The Tuesday attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi killed four American citizens, including U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
If Salafists are to blame, this marks just one more in a long string of jihadist attacks in recent months -- attacks that paint a dismal picture of Libya's prospects for lasting security and stability.
Michel Cousins, owner of the Libya Herald, covered the attack from his offices in Tripoli. He and his Benghazi reporters faced conflicting reports from the very beginning, but certain details became clear as more eyewitness reports filtered in.
"The [demonstrators] arrived there intending to cause damage," he said. "I heard from various friends that they started to hear explosions around the same time -- the protests had started earlier, but the explosions began at 10 p.m."
It has since been reported that rocket-propelled grenades set the building aflame, and smoke inhalation was the ultimate cause of death for the four Americans who lost their lives.
The Benghazi attack has been linked to the release of a YouTube video in the United States. A two-hour film produced by an alleged Israeli-American Californian resident named Sam Bacile ridicules Islam, the Quran and the prophet Muhammed. But some observers, including Cousins, believe the incident had nothing at all to do with Bacile's movie.
"I do not think the film was the real issue here. I think this was plotted beforehand," he said, adding that the attack occurred on Sept. 11, an anniversary of tragedy that also happens to be the eve of elections for Libya's new prime minister.
Compared to other Libyan cities, Benghazi is an unlikely site for a religiously motivated attack against Americans. This was the hub of the revolutionary movement that overthrew capricious dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. It was toward this city that government troops were marching when NATO staged a U.S.-led military intervention in March.
And in Libya's historic General National Congress elections in July, when liberal candidates made a strong showing across the country, Benghazi residents were one of the most secular voting blocs.
So Salafists certainly seem out of place in Libya's second city -- and in many ways, they are. They form a minor segment of the population, though an exact percentage is hard to pin down. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the attackers a "small and savage group," and Cousins estimates them at 1 percent of Benghazi residents.
"They are immensely small, but they have power through the barrel of a gun. And the Libyan people do not like it," he said. "But they seem to have friends -- not so much in high places, but where it counts, like among certain soldiers and in the Supreme Security Committee."
Not all Salafists are militant ideologues. But violent extremists have formed a number of small organizations under the umbrella of Salafism.
One of those groups, called Ansar al-Sharia, is a likely suspect in the fatal attack on Tuesday.
For Libya, the crux of this problem is not religious extremism so much as weak national security. These small groups of militants have infiltrated police networks and gained access to Libya's admittedly abundant weaponry with disturbing ease.
And Tuesday was not an isolated incident; Salafists have carried out many attacks targeting both Libyans and foreigners in recent months. Sufi shrines have become frequent targets, as Salafists consider that branch of Islam to be idolatrous.
Meanwhile, the Libyan government is working, haltingly, to put itself together. The congress is electing a new prime minister on Wednesday, and the drafting of a post-revolution constitution is underway. But until those essential state-building tasks are complete, security may have to take a backseat.
Now, just as in March of last year, the United States is stepping in to lend a hand. CNN reports that American surveillance drones will be used to help locate the perpetrators of Tuesday's attack -- it may then be up to Libya to strike when necessary.
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