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Killing of US envoy to Libya underscores threat of unchecked religious fanaticism

US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens was killed when Islamists attacked the Benghazi consulate in reaction to a video produced in the US that insulted the prophet Muhammad.

The US ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three diplomatic staff members were killed last night when Islamists attacked the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, the State Department confirmed today

Coupled with the overrunning of the US embassy inCairo yesterday, the incident illustrates the challenge that post-revolution governments face in reining in newly empowered hardliners.   

The armed Islamists who attacked and burned the consulate in Benghazi were reportedly angered by a film mocking the prophet Mohammed that was produced in the US. International television channels like Al Jazeera aired footage today of the burned and ransacked consulate building. A US official in Tripoliconfirmed that the bodies of the four were flown to Tripoli today and pictures circulated on Twitter of the apparently lifeless body of a man who resembled Mr. Stevens, being carried by crowds of men.

An angry crowd also protested the video at the US embassy in Cairo yesterday, scaling the wall to enter the compound and tearing down the American flag to replace it with an Islamist flag. No one was hurt in that demonstration, and protesters eventually left the embassy compound.

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The movie that sparked the violence was produced in the US by an Israeli based in the US, Sam Bacile, who told the Associated Press that he made the film to expose Islam’s flaws. Any portrayal of the prophet Muhammad is forbidden in Islam, but the film, an amateurish production using actors with American accents, mocks the prophet and portrays him as a buffoon who endorses extramarital sex and child abuse.The film was promoted by an Egyptian Christian who lives in the US and often attacks Muslims and Islam. It was dubbed into Arabic and subsequently shown by religious television personalities and discussed in the media. Many of the protesters at the Cairo embassy thought that Egyptian Christians were responsible for making the film, and demanded that the US government ban it from being shown.

Both incidents, particularly the deadly attack in Benghazi, test the ability and desire of governments in Cairo and Tripoli to rein in and hold accountable extremist groups in both countries. In Cairo, there were few security forces stationed at the American embassy before the planned protest, and they did not try to prevent the protesters from overrunning the compound.

Those who attacked the consulate in Benghazi using rocket-propelled grenades were reportedly members of the Islamist group Ansar El Sharia, which means Supporters of Sharia, or Islamic law. Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist groups at the University of Exeter, says the group belongs “in a large degree to the salafi jihadi ideology” in Libya, and some of its supporters or sympathizers have links to other militant Islamist groups in the country.

There are several such groups that have capitalized on the security vacuum and influx of weapons during and after the revolt against former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, says Dr. Ashour. Hardline Islamists have repeatedly attacked shrines belonging to the sufi sect, which they consider heretical, in recent months. But Ashour says the militant groups “are in the tens, not the hundreds, so we are talking about a fairly small group.” The Libyan government has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to rein in armed militias, including Islamist groups, since the end of the war.

Ashour says other Islamist groups are likely to condemn an attack that represents a small current within Libya, not the wider population. Many in Libya welcomed the US-led NATO intervention that kept Mr. Qaddafi’s forces from crushing the rebels last year.

“I think the reaction will be major condemnation even within the Islamist current, whether theMuslim Brotherhood in Libya, the offshoots of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whether the salafi community of Libya. … There are a handful of perpetrators of this act. This is not the wider Libyan community; this is not the wider Muslim community, not even the wider Islamist community.”

Chris Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, was the second-ranking US official in Libya before the revolt. When most of the American diplomatic corps in Libya left, he was appointed envoy to the Libyan opposition and stayed in the rebel capital of Benghazi. He was well-liked by many opposition members and journalists, with whom he was friendly and open. He spent nearly his entire career in the foreign service in the Middle East and North Africa, and was a friendly and knowledgeable diplomat, according to those who knew him. 

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In a video released by the State Department when Mr. Stevens was appointed ambassador to Libya after Qaddafi’s ouster, he said he “quickly grew to love this part of the world” when he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. In the video, which has Arabic subtitles, he said he looked forward to returning to Libya and hoped the US could partner with the newly independent country on issues like health care and education.