U.S. sends Marines, 2 Navy destroyers to Libya after deadly attack

Libyans walk on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. The American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed when a mob of protesters and gunmen overwhelmed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, setting fire to it in outrage over a film that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Ambassador Chris Stevens, 52, died as he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff as a crowd of hundreds attacked the consulate Tuesday evening, many of them firing machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri)

Libyans walk on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. The American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed when a mob of protesters and gunmen overwhelmed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, setting fire to it in outrage over a film that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Ambassador Chris Stevens, 52, died as he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff as a crowd of hundreds attacked the consulate Tuesday evening, many of them firing machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri)

J. Christoper Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya

J. Christoper Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya

Glass, debris and overturned furniture are strewn inside a room in the gutted U.S. consulate Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, after a Tuesday night attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Associated Press

Glass, debris and overturned furniture are strewn inside a room in the gutted U.S. consulate Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, after a Tuesday night attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Libyan Ambassador to the U.S. Ali Suleiman Aujali on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, at the State Department in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Libyan Ambassador to the U.S. Ali Suleiman Aujali on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, at the State Department in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaks Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in the Rose Garden of the White House about the death of U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaks Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in the Rose Garden of the White House about the death of U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon called out the Marines on Wednesday and dispatched them to Libya, it wasn't the first wave of an invading force.

Instead, the 50 Marines are part of an elite rapid-response team and they were sent to assess and reinforce security in Libya in the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador there and three other Americans.

Known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST, the team's role is to respond on short notice to terrorism threats and to bolster security at U.S. embassies. They operate worldwide, and the team that went is one of two that are based in Spain.

Administration officials who discussed the Marines spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the military movements. The Marines arrived at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, and there were no immediate plans for them to advance to Benghazi. Officials said they did not know how long the team might stay there.

A second Marine FAST element was standing by in Spain but had no orders to move, officials said.

The Pentagon also ordered two Navy destroyers to the Libyan coast. Officials said the ships, the USS McFaul and USS Laboon, which carry Tomahawk cruise missiles, did not have a specific mission, but they give commanders flexibility to respond to any mission ordered by the president. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. military regularly takes precautionary steps when potential contingencies might arise in a given situation. He did not comment on ship movements.

U.S. embassies, particularly in major countries and in unstable or less secure nations, usually have a resident contingent of Marine security guards. Early indications were that there was no Marine security unit at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. A consulate is a branch office in major cities outside the capital. These guards work under the supervision of the senior diplomatic officer at an embassy.

The main role of Marine security guards is to protect classified national security documents, according to the web site of the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, which administers the security guard mission from a Marine base in Virginia. Their secondary role is to protect U.S. citizens and U.S. government property in the event of an emergency.

The Marines began their security guard mission in 1948. They are trained at the Marine Security Guard School.

In rare cases, the Marines send a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or a portion of the team, to reinforce security at embassies. They were sent to Africa, for example, in response to the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A FAST group also provided security aboard a Navy hospital ship in New York following the 9/11 attacks.

EARLIER:

BENGHAZI, Libya — The U.S. dispatched an elite group of Marines to Tripoli on Wednesday following a mob attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. U.S. officials are investigating whether the violence was a backlash to an anti-Islamic video with ties to Coptic Christians, or a plot to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11.

Tuesday's stunning attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi poses a daunting task for U.S. and Libyan investigators: searching for the culprits in a city rife with heavy weapons, multiple militias, armed Islamist groups and little police control.

The one-story villa that serves as the consulate was a burned-out wreck after the crowd armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades rampaged through it. Slogans of "God is great" and "Muhammad is God's Prophet" were scrawled across its scorched walls. Libyan civilians strolled freely in charred rooms with furniture and papers strewn everywhere.

President Barack Obama vowed in a Rose Garden address that the U.S. would "work with the Libyan government to bring to justice" those who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, information manager Sean Smith and two other Americans who were not identified. Three other Americans were wounded.

Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty in 30 years.

"We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None," said Obama, who also ordered increased security at U.S. diplomatic posts abroad.

Republican Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of showing weakness in the consulate killings, but the president retorted that his rival "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later." Some in the GOP called Romney's remarks hasty.

The mob attack on Tuesday — the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strike in the U.S. — was initially presumed to have been a spontaneous act triggered by outrage over a movie called "Innocence of Muslims" that mocked Islam's Prophet Muhammad that was produced in the U.S. and excerpted on YouTube. The amateurish video also drew protests in Cairo, where angry ultraconservatives climbed the U.S. Embassy's walls, tore down an American flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner.

But a U.S. counterterrorism official said the Benghazi violence was "too coordinated or professional" to be spontaneous. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.

The FBI was sending evidence teams to Libya, a law enforcement official said.

Libya's new leadership — scrambling to preserve ties with Washington after U.S. help to overthrow former dictator Moammar Gadhafi — vowed to find those behind the attack. Interim President Mohammed el-Megarif apologized to the United States for what he called the "cowardly" assault, which also killed several Libyan security guards at the consulate in the eastern city.

Parliament speaker Omar al-Houmidan suggested the attack might have been planned, saying the mob "may have had foreign loyalties" — an apparent reference to international terrorists. "We are not sure. Everything is possible," he said.

A Libyan jihadist group, the Omar Abdel-Rahman Brigades, claimed responsibility for a bomb that went off outside the Benghazi consulate in June, causing no injuries. The group, which also carried out several attacks on the International Red Cross in Libya, said at the time that the bomb was revenge for the killing of al-Qaida's No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.

About 50 U.S. Marines were sent to Libya to guard U.S. diplomatic facilities. The Marines are members of an elite group known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST, whose role is to respond on short notice to terrorism threats and to reinforce security at embassies.

The Marines, sent from a base in Spain, were headed initially to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, not to Benghazi, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The consulate attack illustrated the breakdown in security in Libya, where the government is still trying to establish authority months after Gadhafi's fall.

There also were indications that two distinct attacks took place — one on the consulate, then a second hours later early Wednesday on a nearby house to which the staff had been evacuated.

The crowd of several thousand that descended on the consulate was armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, said Wanis el-Sharef, the deputy interior minister of Libya's eastern region.

A small contingent of Libyan security protecting the facility fired in the air, trying to intimidate the mob. But faced with superior size and firepower, the Libyan security withdrew, el-Sharef said. Gunmen stormed the building, looted its contents and torched it, he said.

Details of how the Americans were killed were still unclear.

Stevens, 52, and a consulate staffer who had stayed behind in the building died in the initial attack, el-Sharef said. The rest of the staff successfully evacuated to a nearby building, preparing to move to Benghazi Airport after daybreak to fly to the capital of Tripoli, he said.

Hours after the storming of the consulate, a separate group of gunmen attacked the other building, opening fire on the more than 30 Americans and Libyans inside. Two more Americans were killed, he said.

Dr. Ziad Abu Zeid, who treated Stevens, told The Associated Press that he died of asphyxiation, apparently from smoke. In a sign of the chaos, Stevens was brought by Libyans to the Benghazi Medical Center with no other Americans, and no one at the facility knew who he was, Abu Zeid said.

He said he tried to revive Stevens for about 90 minutes "with no success." The ambassador was bleeding in his stomach because of the asphyxiation but had no other injuries, the doctor said.

Widely regarded as one of the most effective American envoys to the Arab world, Stevens brokered tribal disputes and conducted U.S. outreach efforts in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh. As a rising star in U.S. foreign policy, he retuned to Libya four months ago, determined to see a democracy rise where Gadhafi's dictatorship flourished for four decades.

Smith, 34, was an Air Force veteran who had worked as an information management officer for 10 years in posts such as Brussels, Baghdad and Pretoria. Smith was also well-known in the video game community.

The bloodshed stunned many Libyans, especially since Stevens was a popular envoy among different factions and politicians, including Islamists, and was seen as a supporter of their uprising against Gadhafi.

The leader of Ansar al-Shariah, an armed ultraconservative Islamist group, denied any involvement in the attack.

"We never approve of killing civilians, especially those who helped us," Youssef Jihani said in a reference to Stevens. "We are well-educated and religious."

The violence in Libya raised worries that further protests could break out around the Muslim world, but the reaction was limited.

The movie, "Innocence of Muslims," came to attention in Egypt after its trailer was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. The video-sharing website blocked access to it Wednesday. The trailer depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.

In Cairo, some 200 Islamists staged a second day of protest outside the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday, but there were no more attempts to scale the embassy walls. After nightfall, the group dwindled and some protesters scuffled with police, who fired tear gas and dispersed them, emptying the streets.

In a statement on his official Facebook page, Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the movie, saying the government was responsible for protecting diplomatic missions as well as the freedom of speech and peaceful protest.

But, he added, authorities "will confront with full determination any irresponsible attempt to break the law."

Romney's criticism of Obama didn't mesh completely with events in Cairo.

A U.S. Embassy statement that Romney referred to as akin to apology was issued by the Cairo embassy at midday on Tuesday at a time the staff was aware of still-peaceful demonstrations nearby. It was four or five hours later when the mob breached the compound's walls and tried to burn a U.S. flag, and later still when the Libya attack happened.

The embassy statement condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," and noted that religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy.

About 50 protesters burned American flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia's capital Wednesday but were kept away from the building by reinforced security. And in Gaza City, dozens of protesters carrying swords, axes and black flags chanted "Shame on everyone who insults the prophet." The rally was organized by supporters of a militant group aligned with the ruling Hamas movement.

Afghanistan's government sought to avert any protests. President Hamid Karzai condemned the movie, and authorities also temporarily shut down access to YouTube, said Aimal Marjan, general director of Information Technology at the Ministry of Communications.

The search for those behind "Innocence of Muslims" led to a California Coptic Christian convicted of financial crimes who acknowledged his role in managing and providing logistics for the production.

A man identifying himself as Sam Bacile told the AP on Tuesday that he wrote, produced and directed the film.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told the AP in an interview outside Los Angeles that he was manager for the company that produced "Innocence of Muslims."

Nakoula denied directing the film and said he knew Bacile. But the cellphone number that the AP used Tuesday to reach the man who identified himself as Bacile was traced to the same address near Los Angeles where the AP found Nakoula. Federal court papers said Nakoula's aliases included Nicola Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.

Nakoula told the AP that he was a Coptic Christian and said the film's director supported the concerns of Christian Copts about their treatment by Muslims.

Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.

Nakoula denied posing as Bacile. During a conversation outside his home, he offered his driver's license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found the name "Basseley" and other connections to the Bacile persona.

Bacile told the AP he was an Israeli-born, 56-year-old, Jewish writer and director. But a Christian activist involved in the film project, Steve Klein, said Wednesday that "Bacile" was a pseudonym, that he was not Jewish or Israeli, and a group of Americans of Mideast origin collaborated on the film. Officials in Israel also said there was no record of Bacile as an Israeli citizen.

And even though Bacile told AP he was 56, he identified himself on his YouTube profile as 74. Bacile also said he is a real estate developer, but his name does not appear in searches of California state licenses, including the Department of Real Estate.

Film industry groups and permit agencies said they had no records of "Innocence of Muslims." A man who answered a phone listed for the Vine Theater, a faded Hollywood movie house, confirmed the movie had run for a least a day, and possibly longer, several months ago, arranged by a customer known as "Sam."

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features