Hours after characterizing Mitt Romney as having a “tendency to shoot first and ask questions later,” President Obama toned down his political rhetoric at a campaign event in Las Vegas, but reiterated his promise to bring those who killed four Americans in Libya to justice, saying, “we will be relentless in our pursuit of those who attacked us yesterday.” Meanwhile, the administration took the first steps toward a possible military response, moving two Navy destroyers toward the coast of Libya as a precaution, and sending 50 Marines to help secure the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. Though more details are beginning to emerge, officials still haven’t confirmed reports that the attack on the Benghazi consulate was planned.
According to Reuters, U.S. government officials are looking at the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, and believe that members of Al Qaeda’s north Africa affiliate may have been involved. Locals told The Wall Street Journal that the roughly 200 armed men who showed up at the consulate on Tuesday evening definitely weren’t interested in protesting. “We told them to leave our homes alone and one [of the militants] replied, ‘The Americans are infidels and we are going to finish them,’” says a doctor who lives in the neighborhood.
About two hours later, the men started firing at the main building in the compound, which quickly caught fire. A senior administration official told Politico that the Benghazi consulate was just “an interim facility,” so the Marines who would usually be posted there weren’t present. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, aide Sean Smith, and a State Department security officer tried to escape, but they were separated due to the heavy smoke. After the guard made it out, he and other security officers went back for the others, but they couldn’t locate Stevens and found that Smith was already dead. Later Libyans pulled Stevens from the building and took him to a hospital, but he couldn’t be revived. Other staffers had been evacuated to an annex, but around midnight militants attacked that building as well, killing two diplomats.
While officials agree that the attack seems planned, some said it’s too early to assume that it was inspired by the anniversary of September 11 or the anti-Islamic video being promoted by Florida pastor Terry Jones. The violence may have been provoked by another video that al Qaeda distributed online a day earlier. CBS News reports that the video confirmed for the first time that U.S. drone strikes killed Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, the terrorist group’s second in command, and encouraged Libyans to avenge his death. So far the members of Ansar al-Sharia have denied that they planned the attack, but in an interview on Benghazi television they called those who did “the top layer of Libyan society.”