Four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, were killed in an attack by Muslim protestors on the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strike in the U.S.
The protesters were apparently angered over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. They fired gunshots and burned down the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
However, President Barack Obama’s administration is investigating whether the assault on the U.S. Consulate was a planned terrorist strike to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and not a spontaneous mob enraged over an anti-Islam YouTube video.
Yesterday morning, President Barack Obama condemned the attack, calling it "outrageous and shocking."
"We’re working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats," he said. "I’ve also directed my Administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world. And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people."
The mob attack on Tuesday was initially presumed to have been a spontaneous act triggered by outrage over a movie called "Innocence of Muslims" which mocked Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and was produced in the U.S. and excerpted on YouTube. The amateurish video also drew protests in Cairo, where angry ultraconservatives climbed the U.S. Embassy’s walls, tore down an American flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner.
However, a U.S. counterterrorism official said the Benghazi violence was "too coordinated or professional" to be spontaneous. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.
Two of the Americans who were killed have been indentified:
• Chris Stevens, 52, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. The career diplomat spoke Arabic and French and had served two tours in Libya, including running the office in Benghazi during the revolt against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He also brokered tribal disputes and conducted U.S. outreach efforts in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh.
• Sean Smith, an Air Force veteran who worked as an information management specialist for the State Department for 10 years in posts including Brussels, Baghdad and Pretoria.
In a show of force, the Pentagon moved two warships to the Libyan coast.
Officials said one destroyer, the USS Laboon, moved to a position off the coast Wednesday, and the destroyer USS McFaul was en route and should be stationed off the coast within days, increasing the number of Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean from four to five. The ships, according to officials, carry Tomahawk cruise missiles and do not have a specific mission. But they give commanders flexibility to respond to any mission ordered by the president.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "Without commenting on specific ship movements, the United States military regularly takes precautionary steps when potential contingencies might arise in a given situation. That’s not only logical in certain circumstances, it’s the prudent thing to do."
The U.S. also dispatched an elite group of Marines to Tripoli yesterday.
About 50 U.S. Marines were sent to Libya to guard U.S. diplomatic facilities. The Marines are members of an elite group known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST, whose role is to respond on short notice to terrorism threats and to reinforce security at embassies.
The Marines, sent from a base in Spain, were headed initially to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, not to Benghazi, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
"We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None," Obama said.
State officials also released statments regarding the embassy attack.
In keeping with the presidential proclamation, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered all U.S. and state flags lowered to half-staff at all state facilities as a mark of respect for the memory Americans killed at the embassy. Flags are to remain at half-staff until sunset on September 16.
"What happened in Benghazi is a harsh reminder of the dangers faced by the men and women serving abroad," Tomblin said. "Joanne and I extend our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the Ambassador and the other personnel who lost their lives."
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) had strong words regarding the attack.
"We condemn – in the strongest words possible – this senseless act of violence by a fringe extremist Islamic group that took the life of four Americans who were dedicated to our country and the Libyan people," Rahall said. "This is a sad time and there is never any justification for violent attacks of any kind. These brave Americans gave their lives in service to the ideals of freedom and democracy, and our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends and coworkers."
U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller (both D-W.Va.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also commented on the attacks.
"I know that all West Virginians will join Gayle and me in praying for the Americans who lost their lives in Libya, their families, and all those Americans who serve this country by putting themselves in harm’s way," Manchin said. "These killings are a terrible reminder that our freedoms are never free, and that countless Americans put their lives on the line to keep us safe and bring peace to the world every day. Our thoughts and prayers are also with all American citizens in Cairo and Benghazi who remain in danger.
"I join the Administration in condemning these violent attacks in Libya and Egypt in the strongest possible terms. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I will closely monitor this situation to make sure that our country takes the appropriate steps to respond and keep the American people safe from harm both at home and abroad," Manchin said. "Finally, I will do everything in my power to make sure we apprehend and bring to justice those responsible for these acts of cowardice."
"I condemn, in the strongest possible way, the senseless attack on the diplomatic team in Libya," Rockefeller said. "The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, a dedicated career diplomat who spent his life working on behalf of the American people, is a setback for the cause of peace and efforts of our State Department. And the deaths of three other Americans are similarly tragic, and it’s my hope that the killers will be swiftly brought to justice. This cowardly attack won’t stop us from our mission of promoting freedom and democracy for the people of Libya, nor will it keep our diplomats from their important work overseas. On this day I offer my prayers and best wishes to the families and loved ones of those who were killed."
"I am heartbroken and outraged by the murder of four U.S. citizens, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, during the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi," Paul said. "My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost loved ones in this tragedy. The perpetrators of this senseless attack must be brought to justice. I, therefore, demand that until the Libyan police hand over suspects to U.S officials, any U.S. foreign aid to the government of Libya be contingent on their full support in this matter."
The bloodshed stunned many Libyans, especially since Stevens was a popular envoy among different factions and politicians, including Islamists, and was seen as a supporter of their uprising against Gadhafi.
The leader of Ansar al-Shariah, an armed ultraconservative Islamist group, denied any involvement in the attack.
"We never approve of killing civilians, especially those who helped us," Youssef Jihani said in a reference to Stevens. "We are well-educated and religious."
Stevens was the sixth U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty and the first since 1979.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.