CAIRO -- Islamists armed with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a lightly defended U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi late Tuesday, killing the U.S. ambassador and three members of his staff and raising fresh questions about the radicalization of countries swept up in the Arab Spring.
The ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, was missing almost immediately after the start of an intense, four-hour firefight for control of the mission, and his body was not located until Wednesday morning at dawn, when he was found dead at a Benghazi hospital, U.S. and Libyan officials said. It was the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador died in a violent assault.
U.S. and European officials said that while many details about the attack remained unclear, the assailants seemed organized, well trained and heavily armed, and appeared to have at least some level of advanced planning. But the officials cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether the attack was guided or influenced by al-Qaida, or timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by an Islamist brigade formed during last year's uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon.
The wave of unrest set off by the video, posted online in the United States two months ago and dubbed into Arabic for the first time eight days ago, has further underscored the instability of the countries that cast off their longtime dictators in the Arab Spring revolts. It also cast doubt on the adequacy of security preparations at U.S. diplomatic outposts in the volatile region.
Benghazi, awash in guns, has recently witnessed a string of assassinations as well as attacks on international missions, including a bomb said to be planted by another Islamist group that exploded near the U.S. Consulate there as recently as June. But a Libyan politician who had breakfast with Stevens at the mission the morning before he was killed described security as sorely inadequate for a U.S. ambassador in such a tumultuous environment, consisting primarily of four video cameras and as few as four Libyan guards.
"This country is still in transition, and everybody knows the extremists are out there," said Fathi Baja, the Libyan politician.
President Barack Obama condemned the killings, promised to bring the assailants to justice, and ordered tighter security at all U.S. diplomatic installations. The administration also dispatched 50 Marines to Libya for greater diplomatic protection, ordered all nonemergency personnel to leave Libya and warned Americans not to travel there.
"These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity," Obama said in a televised statement from the White House Rose Garden, where he stood with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people."
In Tripoli, Libyan leaders also vowed to track down the attackers and stressed their unity with Washington.
Yussef Magariaf, president of the newly elected Libyan National Congress, offered "an apology to the United States and the Arab people, if not the whole world, for what happened." He pledged new measures to ensure the security of foreign diplomats and companies. "We together with the United States government are on the same side, standing in a united front in the face of these murderous outlaws."
Obama administration officials and regional officials scrambled to sort out conflicting reports about the nature of the attack and the motivation of the attackers on Wednesday. A senior Obama administration official told reporters during a conference call that "it was clearly a complex attack," but offered no details.
The video began attracting attention in the Egyptian media, including the broadcast of offensive scenes on Egyptian television last week. At that point, U.S. diplomats in Cairo informed the State Department of the festering outrage in the days before the Sept. 11 anniversary, said a person briefed on their concerns.
It is unclear if television footage of Islamist protesters in Cairo may have inspired the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, a Libyan city near Egypt that had been a hotbed of opposition to Gadhafi, and that remains unruly since the uprising in that country resulted in his death. But Tuesday night, a group of armed assailants mixed with unarmed demonstrators gathered at the small compound that housed a temporary U.S. diplomatic mission there.