The 11 September attack on a US diplomatic outpost in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, has undermined optimistic views of the country's progress since Muammar Gadhafi was ousted in 2011. The assault raised questions about the Libyan authorities' control over the country just as its first elected government was being formed. The new government's efforts to re-establish security and achieve national reconciliation over the coming months will be crucial.
Initial reports linked the incident to mob attacks on US embassies in the region, sparked by a California-made video denigrating the Prophet Mohammed. But diplomatic targets in Benghazi had been subject to similar attempts over the previous five months, suggesting the growing strength of radical Islamist elements as well as Gadhafi-regime loyalists. Eyewitness accounts suggested the attack was led by eight heavily armed individuals, of whom the apparent leader spoke with a 'Benghazi accent'. Apparently pre-planned, it exposed gaping holes not only in the Libyan security apparatus but also, many argue, in that of the American diplomatic corps.
The death of Stevens, the first US ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979, precipitated a highly charged debate in Washington over Libya's transition, and the US role in it. Stevens himself had been a key advocate of the NATO-led air and sea campaign in 2011 in support of the Libyan rebels. While President Barack Obama and prominent Republicans such as Senator John McCain have called for continued strong material and technical support for Libya, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, has criticised Obama's handling of the situation, without outlining specifically what his own approach would be, beyond rooting out the culprits.
The popular Libyan reaction to the Benghazi attacks was illuminating: on 21 September, tens of thousands turned out in Benghazi, where the 2011 rebellion began, and Tripoli, the capital, to denounce the attacks and express sympathy with the American people. Armed citizens appeared to have forced two extremist militias out of camps in the outskirts of Benghazi – though militia members were apparently forewarned and many went underground. The demonstrations followed similar civic action after Salafist attacks on centuries-old Sufi shrines in Tripoli and elsewhere in August.