The Obama administration shifted to crisis mode in response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, deploying warships and Marines and girding for more attacks as Muslims staged violent demonstrations in Arab capitals.
U.S. embassies worldwide were on high alert, two warships moved closer to the Libyan coast and – unconfirmed reports said – missile-firing drones were prowling the skies of eastern Libya. An antiterrorist team of Marines took up positions around the embassy in Tripoli, at the ready in the case an evacuation is ordered.
The deadly assault late Tuesday that killed the top U.S. envoy to Libya has raised questions about the preparedness at the lightly guarded and exposed consulate where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died. The related outbreak of anti-American violence in Cairo and across the Muslim world has also deepened anxiety over whether the leaders brought to power in the Arab Spring revolutions have the ability, and willingness, to control extremists and maintain stability.
For extremist Muslims who vented their fury worldwide, an American-made video lampooning the Prophet Mohammed seemed only the latest in a long series of insults, including Koran burnings and the desecration by U.S. soldiers of Taliban corpses.
But this time, emotions were running high in the United States, too, as the nation mourned the latest victims of radical jihadists killed during an assault on the consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on the anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We will see tightened security in embassies around the world and may even see some embassies closing while things sort themselves out,” warned Tom McDonald, a former ambassador to Zimbabwe who now heads the Government Policy practice at the Washington office of the law firm, BakerHostetler.
“Unfortunate as it sounds,” he added, “in many war-torn, divisive countries, the U.S. ambassador is seen as the primary target when militants want to strike out at America.”
Spasms of anti-American violence, ostensibly fuelled by rage at the crude anti-Islam video, roiled across the Middle East. In Yemen, a rock-throwing mob broke through the main gate of the already-evacuated U.S. embassy compound in Sanaa, smashing windows, setting fire to cars and outbuildings. Yemeni security forces eventually restored order but only after firing volleys of gunfire.
According to witnesses, at least one demonstrator was killed and dozens were injured.
In Cairo, anti-American demonstrators besieged the fortress-like U.S. embassy for the third day, hurling abuse and debris at Egyptian police and military personnel guarding the fortified compound in central Cairo.
Egypt’s new government was damned with faint praise by U.S. President Barack Obama. “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Mr. Obama said.
It was a stunningly public slap, given that Egypt enjoys the rarefied official status of a “major non-NATO ally,” a designation reserved for only a handful of America’s closest and most trusted friends, including Israel, Australia and Japan.
Mr. Obama was putting the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi , of the Muslim Brotherhood, on notice over the less-than-impressive Egyptian efforts to safeguard the U.S. embassy. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, called for protests against the video on Friday in mosques across Egypt.