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Outrage Builds After U.S. Embassy Attacks


This morning, President Obama promised justice will be done after the attack in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. He's ordered dozens of marines to Libya to help bolster security at U.S. facilities there. The attacks in Libya and another in Egypt where protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. embassy and tore down the American flag apparently in response to small online film that ridiculed Islam and the prophet Muhammad, and which happened to be made in the United States.

In a few moments, a former colleague who knew Christopher Stevens and who was at the U.S. embassy in Tehran when it was attacked in 1979. But first, NPR's Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel who joins us from there in Cairo. Nice to have you back on the program.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And do we know anything more about what happened in Benghazi?

FADEL: Well, really a lot of things are unclear. What we do know is that extremist militants attacked the consulate office yesterday with RPGs, gunfire. They were able to start a fire inside and, by some reports, burn it to the ground, really. And four Americans are dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

CONAN: And do we know anything more about the composition of the attackers?

FADEL: Well, from what we understand, the attackers, the armed attackers are extremist Islamist militants, some from Mazar-i-Sharif. There are indications, or there is some speculation or reports out there saying that this was armed Islamist militants taking advantage of the situation, taking advantage of the anger over this film to attack the consulate in Benghazi. But again, that's not anything that confirm or anybody really knows.

CONAN: A lot of Americans will note that both these attacks, the one in Benghazi and we'll have more on the one in Cairo in just a moment, but it was 9/11.

FADEL: Yeah, it was. But, I mean, I do think there is a distinction to be made between what happened in Cairo and what happened in Libya. In Cairo, it was a protest that started off to include some Coptic Christians here, all condemning what they saw as a blasphemous and really inflammatory film that got out of hand, young men scaling walls. There was no gunfire. There was no armed attack, but men were able to scale wall and rip down that flag, and it got really angry and ugly. In Libya, these men were armed with RPGs and other weapons. And this is indicative of the violence in Libya in general, which is on the rise, with assassination campaigns against Gadhafi loyalists, tribal violence and Islamist militants really proliferating in Libya.

CONAN: Did local forces in Cairo and in Benghazi try to defend these diplomatic facilities?

FADEL: Well, in incident with the U.S. embassy in Cairo, you know, we had noticed in the last couple of months security was much more lax than it had been the past. Some roadblocks had been removed. And so I think protesters were able to approach much closer than they usually would have been. Military, Egyptian military and riot police did intervene. And by that night, there was a row of riot police between protesters and the embassy. And tonight - and by the end of the night, it was quiet.

In Libya, it appears that the security force was really overpowered by the militants, and this is a major problem in Libya. There really isn't a security force that can rival a very armed society. When the opposition - or at the time, what they were called, the rebels were fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces, they became extremely armed. And a lot of these men are still extremely armed with weapons that range from RPGs to aircraft weaponry, and those arms are not back in the hands of authorities.

CONAN: So the security situation, obviously much more difficult in Libya. But in Benghazi? This was the headquarters of the opposition. This was their home base before they went to the west and managed finally to go to Tripoli.

FADEL: Yes, it was. It was also the first place that Chris Stevens arrived in Libya when he was the envoy, when Moammar Gadhafi was still in power, and they were still fighting for their freedom. And, you know, he was really welcomed at the time. But it also is a very conservative city and it has - as we have seen, a lot of Islamists have been able to operate. It's a conservative country in general. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're all violent or people in Libya are all violent. I think these are fringe elements.

But a film like this, of course, low budget, probably wouldn't have even gone straight to DVD in the United States. Really, it was dubbed into Arabic and is very - considered very insulting in Islam. So it's a great opportunity for groups, militant Islamist groups, to take advantage of the situation and attack in the way they did yesterday.

CONAN: It was Secretary of State Clinton who said this morning that Americans - this was - she said this is a small, savage group, not to be confused with the Libyan government or the Libyan people. That said, as she said, Americans would find it hard to understand after it was the United States that played such a large part in the victory of the Libyan rebels and indeed in saving the city of Benghazi itself.

FADEL: Yes. I mean, if the United States and other Western countries had not gotten involved, Moammar Gadhafi would have defeated the opposition. I was there at the time. It was really a fight that they couldn't win on their own. And Western countries were celebrated and welcomed. But there is a lot of anti-American sentiment amongst some of these militant groups for foreign policy decisions of the past the United States has made. And it's not necessarily true that everybody in Libya loves the United States for that one action.

And so what we're saw last night was also not the first time that there had been attempts to attack the consulate in Benghazi. There's also an attack in June, and I believe also an attack on the ambassador's convoy or something of that nature in May. And so - and also on other Western embassies. So I don't think this is the first time. It's just the most fatal and the most devastating, really, most tragic. And you've seen a lot of denunciation - strong denunciation from Libyan authorities, and speaking to a lot of Libyans that I'm in touch with from here, a lot of sadness that this happened.

CONAN: And briefly, what - can we expect that this may metastasis, that there will be demonstrations elsewhere throughout the region?

FADEL: Yes. We're already seeing signs that this is going to spread in Tunisia. Police got involved pretty quickly there, actually, to disperse protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. The Afghan government condemned "Indore," the film, so there is a possibility of protest there. And the Brotherhood here, who have called for peaceful protest, again, on Friday, against this film. The prime minister in Egypt condemned the attack on the embassy and said, nothing justifies what happened at the embassy yesterday.

But at the same time, the government is calling for a legal action to be taken against the producers of this film and the Egyptian-Americans or Egyptians who live in the United States, the Coptic Christian Egyptians, who are accused of being connected to this film has been put on a watch list here. It's also important to know that four men had been arrested in Egypt in connection with the attack on the embassy last night.

CONAN: Leila Fadel, thank you very much for your time.

FADEL: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, with us on the phone from - with us on the line from Cairo. Ambassador John Limbert knew Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, one of the Americans killed yesterday. Limbert served as U.S. ambassador to Mauritania and most recently as the deputy assistant secretary for Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the Obama administration. He joins us from Studio 3A in Washington.

And, Ambassador, our condolences. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN LIMBERT: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And what can you tell us about Chris Stevens?

LIMBERT: Oh, Chris was - he was one of our best. He had served in a lot of difficult places, including Damascus, including Jerusalem, but he was a thorough professional. He knew the area. He loved the area. This was for him, I think, being in Libya, being ambassador to Libya was the perfect assignment. He was brilliant at his work. And it is a tremendous loss to the services, tremendous loss to the American people. Of course, we also lost another professional, Sean Smith, at the same time. And I understand there are two others who were killed, but I haven't seen any identification of them.

CONAN: What does this tell us about Libya, do you think?

LIMBERT: Well, it tell us about the - a lot about the world. Libya is a very dangerous place, but the world is a very dangerous place. I mean, remember, our - we're a small service. Foreign service is about 8,000 right now, and we've - on our memorial wall in - here in Washington at the State Department, there are about 236 names of people who have fallen in the line of duty, among those are eight ambassadors. Chris Stevens is simply the most recent. People who go out and serve our country overseas, they are going in harm's way. They're in dangerous places. Stability in Libya, stability in many places is very fragile. And we can see here was a case a film nobody knew about seemed to come out of nowhere and ended up in these horrible and tragic consequences.

CONAN: From what we read, Ambassador Stevens was visiting Benghazi for the opening of a cultural center there. And when he heard the news that there was something going on at the consulate, he went immediately there and sadly met his death. But what does that tell us about him?

LIMBERT: Well, he's - these are his people. He is - the ambassador is responsible for it. I would expect nothing else from Chris. He had also been in Benghazi during the revolution and had helped save the insurgents from horrible revenge by the Gadhafi government. He had served in Libya. He was - like his colleagues, he was a thorough professional. I would have expected no less from him. We've seen the same from others, but fortunately, without the same tragic consequences.

CONAN: Ambassador John Limbert, the former ambassador to Mauritania and deputy assistant secretary for Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I have to ask you, when you hear news like this, is there a flashback for you back to 1979 in Tehran?

LIMBERT: Of course, there is, Neal. In Tehran, we were lucky. It was just pure chance that we all got out of - but we all got out alive. But it could easily have gone another way. I've always said, I owe my life to our Marine guards, who had the discipline and training to not shoot at the crowd that was coming in. And that's the reason I'm here today, talking to you today.

The other lesson, perhaps, the other thing that's brought home to me is that those who perpetuated and supported this - the outrage in Tehran 33 years ago, it never been held to account. No one there - many of them are in power. Many of them are ruling. The day is commemorated every year on November 4th as though it was something to be proud of. And as long as that goes on, as long as groups feel for whatever reason they can do these things and get away with them, I'm afraid that the - we're going to see again and again the same kinds of things that have happened, because after all, it only takes a small spark to ignite the kind of horrors that we saw in Benghazi.

CONAN: Given that, we were assured when President Obama came out this morning and vowed justice will be done?

LIMBERT: Of course. We need the - our professionals need this kind of support. After all, they are professionals. They are public servants. It's a reminder that they serve all of us, that the government, in fact, is not our enemy. And people who work for the government are servants of the American people.

CONAN: You mentioned your debt to the U.S. Marine guards in Tehran. Are the U.S. Marines still providing security at places like Benghazi?

LIMBERT: I believe they are. Each mission overseas has a slightly different situation, but the main responsibility, or the primary responsibility for security of missions belongs to the host government, in this case, the Libyan government. Just as in Tehran, we had Marines, but a contingent of eight or 10 Marine guards is not going to stop a mob of 5,000, particularly as it was in Benghazi, armed. I mean, this was not a protest. This was a violent attack and murderous attack. So if the host government cannot or will not exercise its responsibility, our people are in a very dangerous and very vulnerable situation.

CONAN: The - I don't know what the situation was in Benghazi, but in Baghdad, as you know, and in Kabul, too, so many protection missions were outsourced, not done by the United States Marines, but by security agencies hired by the State Department. Given what we've seen, do you think that's a wise policy?

LIMBERT: It may be wise. It may not be, Neal. But in those two places in particular, it was necessary. Under normal circumstances, we would have been in neither place. We would not have had embassies. We needed to have embassies there. That was a foreign policy priority. So we took extraordinary measures, either through U.S. military or through contract and had the level - a level of protection that we simply could not duplicate in other places.

CONAN: And I wonder, given what's happened sadly too often since Tehran - there's been incidence in Pakistan as well and many other places, of course, the explosion at the U.S. embassy in Kenya - are staffers prepared? Are there rehearsals? Are there drills?

LIMBERT: Yes. You do practice this. We talk about it. But there's another side to this. Our job as representatives requires us to get out from behind. We cannot - from the fortress. We cannot sit behind secure walls and moats and barbed wire. We have to have contact with the society in the country where we're serving. We have to be able to meet people.

And if you look at the performance of Ambassador Stevens or other colleagues like Ambassador Crocker in Afghanistan, Ambassador Ford in Syria, their ability to get out and learn about the country under the most difficult situation is what made them so effective.

CONAN: Ambassador Limbert, thank you again for your time. And again, our condolences on the loss.

LIMBERT: Thank you very much, Neal. I was glad to hear that.

CONAN: John Limbert, the former deputy assistant secretary for Iran at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, former ambassador to Mauritania. He joined us from Studio 3A.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Culver City, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.