CAIRO – A State Department officer was killed Tuesday when armed Islamist militants overran the U.S. Consulate in Libya's second largest city in a day of rage that also struck the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where demonstrators hauled down the American flag, tore it to pieces and burned it.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attack in Benghazi and confirmed the death of the American in a statement, but she did not identify the deceased, say what position he played at the consulate or provide any details of what took place.
"We are heartbroken by this terrible loss," Clinton said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack."
Clinton said she had asked Libya's government to provide additional protection to Americans in Libya and said she would ask other governments to beef up their security precautions.
The storming of U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi and Cairo, where no one was injured, took place on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but appeared to be sparked by outrage over the release of a movie trailer that conservative Muslims in both countries said denigrated Islam and its holiest figure, Muhammad. Clinton acknowledged that as the likely cause in her statement.
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," she said. "But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
Backers of the movie, who included Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose burning of Qurans last year led to days of rioting in Afghanistan, were unapologetic about the role their film may have had in triggering the violence.
"The fact that angry protesters climbed the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today, ripped down the American flag and tore it apart further indicates the lack of respect that Islam has for any other religion, any other flag, any freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion," Jones said in a statement released before the death in Benghazi was confirmed. "It further illustrates that they have no tolerance for anything outside of Muhammad."
Even without the provocation provided by the film, the violence fit a pattern of growing fundamentalist ferment that has touched all of the countries where governments have fallen in the past 18 months. That trend has been especially pronounced in Libya, where in recent weeks conservative Islamists have leveled mosques and cemeteries associated with the moderate Sufi strain of Islam and car bombs in Tripoli, the capital, and Benghazi have become increasingly frequent. In what can only be considered ironic, the United States, which had backed the NATO bombing campaign that helped rebels defeat the government of Moammar Gadhafi last year, has warned its citizens to defer all but essential travel to Libya because of the country's deteriorating security situation.
The protest in Cairo also came at an ironic moment. The U.S. Embassy has been urging companies to invest in Egypt, saying it is now stable for investment.
Egyptian police did little to discourage thousands of protesters who descended on the U.S. Embassy, and stood by as the protesters first sprayed paint on the 12-foot wall that surrounds the compound, then stormed over the wall, where hundreds converged on the flagpole, pulling down the standard, shredding it and burning the remnants.
As the flag was torn and then set on fire, a man climbed a ladder alongside the flagpole and replaced the flag with one that read, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger."
Among the chants yelled toward the embassy was, "Take a picture, Obama, we are all Osama," a reference to Osama bin Laden, who planned and financed the 9/11 attacks and whom U.S. commandoes killed on May 2, 2011.
"Say it, don't fear: Their ambassador must leave," was another.
Organizers of the embassy protest said they'd begun planning the event last week when a controversial Egyptian Christian activist who lives in the United States, Morris Sadek, released a trailer for a movie called "Muhammad," which repeatedly mocks the prophet and the religion. The 14-minute clip, which Sadek first posted on his Facebook page Sept. 5, attacked basic tenets of Islam and suggested that the religion had spread only because the prophet told those he encountered to "pay extortion or die" if they didn't convert.
Christians make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's population, and officials from Egypt's Coptic churches have condemned the film.
The film controversy came as Jones announced Tuesday that he planned to put the prophet on trial in what he called International Judge Muhammad Day.
In a video announcing the "trial," Jones, wearing a black shirt with the word "Infidel" printed on it in Arabic, said that he planned to charge the prophet "with being a false prophet, thus leading 1.6 billion people astray."
The embassy had tried to pre-empt the attack, issuing a statement hours earlier that condemned "the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others." Embassy officials also called Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the conservative Islamist Nour party, in which they apologized for the film and Jones' call, but Bakkar said he was unwilling to call off the protest, and embassy employees were sent home early.
"The American people must know we do not accept any kind of insult of the prophet, peace be upon him," Bakkar said, adding that he nevertheless opposed pulling down the American flag.
In Benghazi, which had been the seat of the anti-Gadhafi rebel forces, armed Islamists apparently led the charge on the U.S. Consulate. Witnesses said that they heard loud explosions nearby and that armed men had surrounded the area around the consulate, blocking the road and making it impossible for reporters to film the scene. The gunmen then set the building on fire.
One man, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said the attackers were conservative Islamists, who generally do not shave. "I was stopped by a guy whose beard extended to his knees," the man said, in an exaggeration. "And he told me very proudly not to pass because we have burned the American consulate."
Looters carried off office furniture and appliances from the consulate compound and passers-by entered the compound to take photos with their cellphones.
The Reuters news agency quoted a spokesman for Libya's Supreme Security Committee, Abdel-Monem al Hurr, as saying that Libyan security forces at the scene had been overwhelmed by the attackers.
Islam forbids any depiction of Muhammad because he's seen as someone whose greatness can't be replicated. In documentaries about his life, he's often portrayed as a ray of light. That someone would mock the prophet is considered blasphemous.
Sharif Abdel Meniem, 29, who helped organize the Cairo protest, said he planned the demonstrations "because the Americans did not take a real stand against" Jones' call.
"The prophet does not have a hand in the 9/11 attacks," he said as chanters yelled, "The prophet's army has arrived."
That the protest fell on Sept. 11 wasn't lost on those participating.
"This anniversary provokes the United States," said Islam Mustafa, 23, a student. "But (Americans) are the ones provoking us."
(McClatchy special correspondent Suliman Ali Zway contributed from Tripoli, Libya. Hannah Allam contributed from Washington.)