- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2012

Libyan security officials Thursday said they have arrested four men suspected of involvement in the attack that killed a U.S. ambassador this week, and referred to the incident as an organized assault by militants who carried out carefully timed raids on both the diplomatic compound and a safe house where evacuated U.S. personnel were waiting to be rescued.

With the FBI now assisting in the investigation, news of the arrests came as animosity toward the United States widened across the Middle East. In a rowdy protest Thursday in Yemen, hundreds of demonstrators stormed the U.S. Embassy chanting: “Death to America.”

There were also reports of a brief but intense uprising in Iran, where the same chant could be heard from hundreds of demonstrators attempting to lay siege to the Embassy of Switzerland, which oversees U.S. interests in the absence of formal American diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic.

In Washington, the Obama administration held firm to the position that the week’s violence — which has also seen the tearing down of the American flag at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — was triggered by unbridled anger among Mideast Muslims toward a film produced in the United States that derides Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Libyan officials said the attack in their country, which claimed the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on Tuesday night, was seemingly timed to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But U.S. officials cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that the incidents in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Iran are connected by anything more than theme, and stressed that while an investigation is under way, no clear evidence has emerged of a terrorist plot.

Questions of a wider plot

With specific regard to Libya, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that U.S. officials “are very cautious about drawing any conclusions with regard to who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, whether it was premeditated, whether they had any external contacts, whether there was any link until we have a chance to investigate.”

She said U.S. officials monitoring social media in the Middle East believe the spark to all of the demonstrations has come from anger a toward the independent film titled “Innocence of Muslims” — Arabic-dubbed clips of which recently appeared on the social media site YouTube.

News of the clips created a firestorm of public unrest in Egypt at the start of this week when a hard-line Islamic television station known as Al Nas began featuring reports and commentary about the insulting nature of the clips.

U.S. officials have lauded the emergence of an independent Egyptian media during aftermath of the revolution that last year ousted the nation’s longtime authoritarian leader. But the presence of such hard-line religious media is now adding yet another layer of complexity to the conduct of American diplomacy in Egypt.

While the Obama administration has condemned in the harshest terms the recent outbursts toward the United States, it has also toed a careful line in an attempt to ease anger toward the “Innocence of Muslims” film. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, added fresh attention to the film Thursday, with an assertion that, “to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible.”

“It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She added, “There is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence.

“We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The Egyptian government, meanwhile, shifted its posture toward one of defending the United States on Thursday.

Shifting relations with Egypt

After an initially failing to denounce the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a key leader of the region’s Muslim Brotherhood political movement, appeared on television with a vow to protect the facility, where protesters had replaced the American flag on Tuesday with an black one bearing the Islamic declaration: “There is no God but Allah.”

Mr. Morsi, who also condemned the attacks in Libya, said that “the Egyptian state is responsible for protecting embassies and consulates” and demanded that the Egyptian people not engage in such “unlawful acts” as storming foreign diplomatic posts.

Despite such remarks, the Egyptian president also seized on the opportunity Thursday to reiterate his own harsh criticisms of the film “Innocence of Muslims.”

“We condemn strongly … all those who launch such provocations and who stand behind that hatred,” he said, adding that he had asked Mr. Obama “to put an end to such behavior.”

Throughout the week, Mr. Obama has taken a cautious tone toward Egypt and Mr. Morsi, who recently became the nation’s first freely elected president. “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Mr. Obama said during an appearance Wednesday night on Telemundo, the Spanish-language TV network.

On Thursday, however, the White House pulled back on the statement, which had caused confusion among leaders in Egypt, a nation that has been designated by Congress as a major non-NATO ally since 1989. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told Foreign Policy magazine that the administration was not trying to signal a change in Egypt’s status.

“I think folks are reading way too much into this,” Mr. Vietor said. “‘Ally’ is a legal term of art. We don’t have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt like we do with our NATO allies. But, as the president has said, Egypt is a longstanding and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation by supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government.”

The administration’s shifting remarks seemed to underscore feelings in Washington that Egypt presents as great a challenge for the United States as any of the countries affected by the recent Middle Eastern unrest.

The White House on Thursday flatly rejected calls from some Republicans who believe U.S. aid to Egypt ought to be halted as a punishment for the slowness with which the Morsi government has moved in rebuking the violent attacks on the U.S. Embassy.

Egypt is second only to Israel in the amount of assistance it receives from the U.S., an estimated $2 billion a year, but the White House has no plans to curtail its investment there. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One Thursday the U.S. would not withhold aid to Egypt. “We appreciate the public statements that [Egyptian] President Morsi has made condemning acts of violence … and honoring its obligation to ensure the safety of Americans,” he said.

Victims identified

In contrast, Yemini and Libyan leaders have been quick to condemn the attacks on U.S. interests. Libyan leaders, particularly, have appeared eager to cooperate with U.S. authorities tracking down those responsible for Mr. Stevens‘ death and putting in place new protections for U.S. personnel in Libya.

U.S. officials confirmed Thursday that the FBI is now assisting with the investigation in Libya.

The State Department has identified Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith as one of the three other Americans killed in Tuesday’s violence, which occurred in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

By Thursday evening, news organizations had identified the two other Americans killed as Glen Doherty, 42, and Tyrone Woods, 41, both former Navy SEALs who were working as civilian security guards for the ambassador.

Senior administration officials have downplayed the lack of security at the Benghazi compound, which was not an embassy or consulate, but a “diplomatic mission” — a smaller facility or outpost like dozens maintained by the State Department in smaller cities across the globe.

Lack of security

Despite initial official claims, the mission had a relatively light security posture compared with other diplomatic facilities in conflict zones of the world.

The White House has said the security in Benghazi included a local guard force stationed outside the compound and a robust American security presence inside the compound.

Typically U.S. embassies and diplomatic outposts have a detachment of at least six Marines to guard interior areas. That was not the case in Benghazi, where officials say there were no Marines stationed.

Pentagon spokesman George Little on Thursday said there were, however, Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, as well as diplomatic facilities in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen — other Arab Spring countries that have seen significant social and revolutionary unrest during the past 19 months.

Mr. Little said U.S. military commanders and civilian leaders are now working closely to review the U.S. force posture throughout the Middle East, and to ensure that the military had the flexibility to respond to requests from the State Department for assistance, or orders as directed by the president.

The Pentagon, he said, is also working with partners throughout the region, including Yemen, Egypt and Afghanistan, “to ensure all missions have any necessary resources from this department given the potential for further protests in the coming days.”

Susan Crabtree and Kristina Wong contributed to this report.