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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.

Political firestorm

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.”

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