The State Department fears that terrorists are moving to exploit the wave of anti-American anger sweeping the Muslim world after a group linked to al Qaeda called for more attacks on U.S. diplomats and a suicide bomber killed 12 foreign workers in Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb circulated a statement in North Africa threatening new attacks in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania condemning the United States for lying to Muslims by claiming its war on terrorism is not a war against Islam.
“We encourage all Muslims to continue to demonstrate and escalate their protests” and to “kill their [American] ambassadors and representatives or to expel them to cleanse our land from their wickedness,” the group said, according to a CNN translation of the statement.
The group also praised last week’s killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died during a nighttime attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Details surrounding the Benghazi attack remain murky and are at the center of a politically charged debate now coursing through Washington over the extent to which any of the recent violence has been part of a premeditated terrorist plot or purely driven by anger toward the “Innocence of Muslims” film that denigrates Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The Obama administration held firm Tuesday to hopes that the protests are spontaneous as new signs emerged that such fury appears only to be spreading.
“We’re seeing a lot of extremist activity trying to exploit the sentiments from this video to gin up folks to violence,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Were diplomats warned?
U.S. intelligence officials, meanwhile, flatly dismissed a recent report by the Independent, a British newspaper. It had cited unnamed “senior diplomatic sources” as claiming that the State Department had received credible information 48 hours prior to the attacks in Egypt and Libya that American missions may be targeted but that no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert.
“The [Independent] report is absolutely false,” Shawn Turner, head of communications for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told The Washington Times. “We are not aware of any actionable intelligence that would have forecast the attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi.”
A senior U.S. official, however, told The Times that before the attacks took place, “There was a cable from the intelligence community that called attention to a video on the Internet that disparaged Islam.”
The official called the cable “routine” and that it was sent out to diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo but not to the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
“It was not a warning,” the official said. “We send tons of these things out all the time.”
“The intelligence community regularly sends info out to posts and embassies calling attention to anything they think the post should be aware of,” added the official, who asked for anonymity given the subject’s sensitive nature.
Officials have stopped short of explaining whether the intelligence cable prompted U.S. diplomats to post a now infamous statement last week on the website of the Cairo embassy condemning “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
The statement, which appeared to have been meant as a pre-emptive apology to Egyptians for the existence of the “Innocence of Muslims” film, was stripped from the website shortly after the violence erupted in Cairo on Sept. 11.
The Obama administration also quickly distanced itself from the statement last week. But it didn’t do so before the statement was seized upon by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who accused the administration of having “sympathized with those who breached our embassy in Egypt” — a claim Democrats and some Republicans now say was made prematurely.
At the State Department, Ms. Nuland said she would not comment “one way or the other” on the question of intelligence that may have been given to diplomats before the start of the ongoing violence.
Concerning the attack in Libya, she said that “all of these things are going to be looked at in the context of the FBI investigation.”
Anger that saw the American flag desecrated and U.S. Embassy walls breached last week appears to have subsided in Egypt and Tunisia. But fresh protests against “Innocence of Muslims,” made by an Egyptian-born American citizen, turned violent in Pakistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir on Tuesday. Hundreds joined rallies in Indonesia and Thailand.
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a minibus carrying South African aviation workers to the city’s airport, killing at least 12 people.
The Islamist militant group Hizb-i-Islami claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Associated Press, which reported that the group is headed by 65-year-old former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — a former Afghan prime minister who was once a U.S. ally.
Pressure on Congress
Pressure has increased this week for Congress to conduct an independent investigation into last week’s attacks in Egypt and Libya as lawmakers and even Libyan officials dispute the Obama administration’s assertion that the attacks were merely mob violence spawned by an offensive film.
Calls for such a probe come in the heat of an election year, and Mr. Romney has accused the president of mishandling the situation. Mr. Obama, fellow Democrats and even some Republicans have said Mr. Romney’s criticism was unseemly and not based in truth.
The Obama administration continued Tuesday to stand behind remarks made over the weekend by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who asserted that U.S. officials “don’t see, at this point, signs this was a coordinated, premeditated attack.”
Her comments contradicted statements from top Libyan officials who have said the attack in their country was clearly planned by militants.
The question about the level of security at the consulate in Benghazi when the attack took place remains a sensitive one at the State Department.
Last week, Ms. Nuland said Mr. Stevens had traveled to Benghazi “with the normal security precautions that were assigned to him throughout Libya” and that his visit to the city was part of his regular business as ambassador.
“He had lived in Benghazi during the end of the Gadhafi period when — during the liberation of Libya,” Mrs. Nuland said, referring to this previous assignment as the U.S. envoy to the Libyan rebels who overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“He made it his business to travel all over the country, but he made regular trips back to Benghazi to check on how things were going in the east, and he was on one of those regularly scheduled trips when these events happened.”
U.S. officials have said a force of locally contracted Libyan guards was stationed outside the consulate in Benghazi, as is standard practice, and there was a “robust security presence” inside.
Contractor hired guards
Ms. Nuland revealed Tuesday that a British company called Blue Mountain had been responsible for contracting the Libyan guards who worked inside the consulate grounds “doing things like operating the security access equipment, screening the cars, that kind of thing.”
A posting on Blue Mountain’s website says the company’s recent tasks have ranged from offering “close protection for high net worth businessmen in London” to “protection of media teams operating in Yemen and in Libya.”
The Obama administration acknowledged over the weekend that no Marines were stationed in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attack.
The Pentagon has since deployed platoons of roughly 50 Marines to Libya and Yemen.
And, in addition to President Obama’s order last week for security to be raised at U.S. diplomatic posts worldwide, the State Department has, in recent days, issued new travel warnings for several Middle Eastern nations, including Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon.