A State Department worker was killed and another injured Tuesday in separate attacks on a U.S. Consulate in Libya and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by hard-line Islamic protesters angry about an anti-Islamic film.
In the Libya attack, armed men stormed and burned the American Consulate in the eastern city of Bengazi, fatally shooting one worker and injuring another.
Anti-American Islamists clambered over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and ripped down the U.S. flag, replacing it with a black flag bearing the Islamic inscription “There is no God but Allah,” commonly flown by al Qaeda.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who confirmed the death, condemned “in the strongest terms” the attack.
“We are heartbroken by this terrible loss,” she said.
There were warnings late Tuesday of the potential for more attacks on Americans.
“There is a high threat of additional attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world,” warned IntelCenter, a private-sector firm that tracks jihadi messaging for clients including U.S. agencies.
“Countries with organized jihadi rebel groups face the highest threat of organized, armed assaults over the next 72 hours,” the firm’s CEO, Ben Venzke, said in a statement Tuesday night.
The protesters — most of them hard-line Islamists of the Salafist movement — stormed the embassy chanting, “Say it, don’t fear: Their ambassador must leave” as part of a rally sparked by anger about a film deemed offensive to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad that reportedly was produced by expatriate members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority in the U.S.
The Wall Street Journal reported late Tuesday that the film fueling the anger, “Innocence of Muslims,” was directed and produced by Sam Bacile, a 52-year-old real-estate developer from Southern California.
U.S. officials late Tuesday described the situation in Libya as “fluid.”
“We are working with the Libyans now to secure the compound. We condemn in strongest terms this attack on our diplomatic mission,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
In Cairo, a dozen or so demonstrators scaled the embassy’s walls, tore the U.S. flag from a pole in the courtyard and tossed it to the crowd. Unable to burn the banner, they ripped it apart in a frenzy.
Protesters clinging to the wall surrounding the compound then raised their black flag with the Muslim declaration of faith.
Egyptian police intervened in the demonstration and dispersed the crowd without violence.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said it would take “all necessary security measures to protect all embassies, diplomatic missions and their staff.”
According to wire reports, a U.S. official said that nearly all the embassy staffers had been sent home before the protest and that the ambassador was out of town. It was not immediately clear whether any staff members had remained inside to watch the events unfold through the building’s windows.
Officials in Washington were somewhat slow to make sense of the protest, news of which broke as the State Department opened its daily news briefing.
“We are obviously working with Egyptian security to try to restore order at the embassy and to work with them to try to get the situation under control,” Mrs. Nuland said.
“Obviously, one of the things about the new Egypt is that protest is possible,” she added. “Obviously, we all want to see peaceful protest, which is not what happened outside the U.S. mission, so we’re trying to restore calm now.”
A statement posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo made no reference to the rally or the tearing down of the American flag.
The attacks were believed to be a response to a U.S.-produced film that the attackers believed was blasphemous to Islam.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo had issued a statement during the day that criticized the makers of the film.
“The Embassy of 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,” the statement read. “Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy.
“Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,” the statement said. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
It’s likely that the storming of the embassy occurred after officials posted the statement, which apparently was meant to calm local anger over the recently produced film critical of the Prophet Muhammad.
Clips of the film, which Egyptian media reports said was produced in the U.S. by an anti-Muslim group, could be viewed Tuesday on YouTube. The film depicts Muhammad as a fraud, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any fashion, much less in an insulting way.
The flag flown by the protesters is black and bears in white Arabic lettering the first line of the Muslim creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Beneath the slogan is the seal of Muhammad.
The flag was first used by al Qaeda during its insurgency in Iraq, according to Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But it has since been widely adopted by other Islamist extremists.
“Muhammad flew a white flag in peace and a black one in war,” said Mr. Zelin, adding that the flag’s color makes it in effect a military standard.
“It symbolizes resistance,” he said, playing down suggestions that al Qaeda supporters had dominated the Tuesday demonstration in Cairo.
“I think the demonstrators were telling the United States to stop meddling in Egyptian affairs,” Mr. Zelin said. “They don’t want the United States there.”
Within hours of Tuesday’s rally in Cairo, however, photos of demonstrators chanting and scaling the embassy walls were being posted on password-protected Internet forums used by members of al Qaeda.
“They are very excited about what happened,” said Mr. Zelin, who monitors such sites in his research.
Some forum members were even trying to link the incident to 9/11, he said, quoting one post that read: “Eleven years ago, we hit them in their own backyard, today we hit them in Cairo.”
• Shaun Waterman and Ashish Kumar Sen contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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