Center for Strategic Communication

Unknown “gunmen” thought to be linked to Islamist militias overran the US Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi in Libya last night, and killed the US ambassador, a consular official, and two security personnel. In Egypt, Islamists and other Egyptians stormed the US embassy in Cairo and raised al Qaeda’s flag over the building. The attacks were in response to a controversial film released on YouTube that depicts the life of the Prophet Mohammed in a negative light.

The assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi began last night after a large group of heavily armed fighters, estimated at 60 to 70 strong, according to Al Jazeera gathered outside and launched rocket-propelled grenades at the building. The fighters outgunned the local Libyan guards, entered the consulate, ransacked it, and set it aflame.

It is still unclear how US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, consular official Sean Smith, and two former SEALs who were members of the security detail who were originally thought to be US Marines, were killed. Reports indicate the security personnel were killed in gunfire, and there have been conflicting reports that Stephens died in an ambush while leaving the building, or died of smoke inhalation. Another unconfirmed report, at The Guardian, said that Stevens’ body may have been dragged in the streets.

An Islamist group called Ansar al Shariah was blamed for the attack, but according to The New York Times, Ansar al Shariah issued a statement denying the attack. However, an anonymous banker who witnessed the events claimed that Ansar al Shariah executed the attack and that the Libyan guards stood by, according to The Libya Herald. Ansar al Shariah attacked the Tunisian Consulate in Benghazi on June 18, and on June 9 the group had called for the implementation of sharia across Libya.

Islamist groups are prevalent in Libya, and have attacked US and British diplomatic personnel, as well as the International Red Cross in the past. A group calling itself the Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, which is named after the Egyptian cleric currently serving a life sentence in a US federal prison for his role in the 1993 bombings at the World Trade center, claimed credit for some of the attacks in Benghazi in June, according to The Washington Post.

Salafists have run wild in Libya, destroying mosques and shrines that are deemed to be un-Islamic. Libya’s interior minister admitted as much at the end of August, when he said his forces were powerless to stop them and a host of other militias. From McClatchy:

“If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons,” Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Alsaid said in late August, according to McClatchy. “They are large in power and number in Libya. I can’t enter a losing battle to kill people over a grave.”

Libya’s deputy Interior Minister, Wanis al Sharif, placed the blame for last night’s assault on the US Consulate on militias loyal to former President Muammar Gaddafi, and also blamed the US for not with withdrawing its personnel from its diplomatic missions.

“They are to blame simply for not withdrawing their personnel from the premises, despite the fact that there was a similar incident when [al-Qaeda second-in-command and Libyan citizen] Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed. It was necessary that they take precautions. It was their fault that they did not take the necessary precautions,” he said, according toAl Jazeera.

Islamist protesters over US embassy walls in Cairo

Several hours before the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, chanting anti-US slogans in angry reaction to the negative portrayal of Islam in the film on YouTube. Many of the protesters were ultraconservative Salafists, and some were chanting “We are all Osama,” The Associated Press reported.

A number of protesters scaled the embassy walls and entered the compound, taking down the American flag and trying to burn it. They raised the black flag of al Qaeda in its place. Egyptian security guards did not stop the protesters from standing on the embassy walls. The crowd grew from hundreds to thousands by evening, and then began to disperse. A senior Egyptian security official said the protest had been permitted because it was “peaceful,” according to AP.

No casualties were reported among US embassy staff, most of whom who had reportedly vacated the compound in advance of the protest, having been warned.

Mohamed al Zawahiri, a younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, took credit for helping to organize last night’s protest in Cairo, CNN reported. “We called for the peaceful protest joined by different Islamic factions including the Islamic Jihad (and the) Hazem Abu Ismael movement,” he said.

Mohamed al Zawahiri is just one of a number of Islamists and al Qaeda adherents who have been released from jail since the Arab Spring in Egypt. In a recent CNN interview, Mohamed was described as “unrepentant in his beliefs” in al Qaeda’s concept of jihad. See Threat Matrix article, CNN interviews Mohamed al Zawahiri.

Mohamed al Zawahiri also appeared in a recent al Qaeda video in which his brother Ayman al Zawahiri delivers a eulogy for slain al Qaeda commander Abu Yayha. The SITE intelligence group reports that Mohamed is shown in the video in an excerpt from an al-Faroq video of Salafists in Egypt.

Today Egyptian state media, which has recently been reorganized so as to have greater Muslim Brotherhood influence in its administration, gave extensive coverage to the protests.

In the wake of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern that the unrest could spread to other countries, and said the US is working with “partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide.”