The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed after protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad stormed the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
President Barack Obama said in Washington that the United States condemned the attack in the “strongest possible terms” and pledged that the United States would work with the Libyan authorities to bring the killers to justice.
“Make no mistake. Justice will be done,” he said.
Obama said in an earlier statement that Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, a married father of two, was also killed. The State Department said next-of-kin notifications were still being made for the other two slain individuals.
Earlier, three Libyan officials told The Associated Press that Stevens was killed Tuesday night when he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the State Department was still making next-of-kin notifications for the other individuals killed in the attack.
“I ask myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” Clinton said. “This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.
“This is an attack that should shock the people of all faiths around the world,” Clinton said.
“Let me be clear: There is no justification for this. None,” she added.
Marines prepared to deploy to region U.S. officials told NBC News the Marines are preparing to send as many as 200 Marines to Libya to bolster security around the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.
The Marines Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team would be deployed from a Marine Amphibious Ready Group, already positioned aboard a helicopter carrier in the North Arabian Sea, officials said.
In addition, the Pentagon and State Department were considering sending additional Marines to other potential trouble spots, including Cairo and Kabul, which have both seen sectarian flareups against the United States.
The officials said that as of now there was no plan for an all-out evacuation of U.S. government personnel from Libya.
On Tuesday in Benghazi, a large mob stormed the U.S. consulate, with gunmen firing their weapons, said Wanis al-Sharef, an Interior Ministry official in Benghazi.
A witness said attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the consulate as they clashed with Libyans hired to guard the facility.
‘A terrifying day’ The crowd overwhelmed the facility and set fire to it, burning most of it and looting the contents, witnesses said.
“I heard nearly 10 explosions and all kinds of weapons. It was a terrifying day,” a witness who refused to give his name because he feared retribution told the AP.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Stevens and the other Americans were not immediately clear.
Clinton did not blame the Libyan government, but rather a “small and savage group” for the violence in Benghazi.
She praised Libyans who she said helped carry the American casualties to local hospitals. Some Libyan security officers trying to protect U.S. personnel were among those wounded in the violence, Clinton added.
“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants,” Obama said in an earlier statement.
Stevens was typically based in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but was apparently visiting Benghazi for the opening of an American cultural center there, The Wall Street Journal said.
According to a biography posted on the State Department’s website, Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer. He had twice served in Libya — from 2007 to 2009 and in 2011 — before being named ambassador in May.
Stevens, who was born and raised in northern California, had also held overseas posts in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Obama called Stevens “a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.”
Smith was an Air Force veteran who had served as an American diplomat in Iraq and South Africa, Clinton said. He had been posted to the U.S. mission in The Hague, the Netherlands, but was on a temporary assignment in Libya when the attack occurred.
Protests in Cairo Demonstrations also broke out Tuesday in Egypt, where protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and tore and replaced the American flag with an Islamic banner. Demonstrations continued outside the American facility Wednesday afternoon.
Tuesday’s attacks were the first such assaults on U.S. diplomatic facilities in either country, at a time when both Libya and Egypt are struggling to overcome the turmoil following the ouster of their longtime leaders, Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.
The protests in both countries were sparked by outrage over a film ridiculing Muhammad. It was produced by an Israeli filmmaker living in California and was being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim, Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States. Excerpts from the film dubbed into Arabic were posted on YouTube.
The 14-minute trailer of the movie, posted on the website in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
Intended to be provocative It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the production of the video, but the AP filed a story saying it had spoken with a California real estate developer named “Sam Bacile,” who claimed to have produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film, called “Innocence of Muslims.”
The AP quoted the man as calling Islam “a cancer” and saying that he intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.
He said the film was produced in English and does not know who dubbed it in Arabic. The full film has been shown once, to a mostly empty theater in Hollywood earlier this year, the AP quoted him as saying.
Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian in the United States known for his anti-Islam views, told the AP from Washington that he was promoting the video on his website and on certain TV stations, which he did not identify.
For several days, Egyptian media have been reporting on the video, playing some excerpts from it and blaming Sadek for it, with ultraconservative clerics going on air to denounce it.
Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any fashion, much less in an insulting way. The 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper triggered riots in many Muslim countries.
Shifting ground The events appeared to underscore how much the ground in the Middle East has shifted for Washington, which for decades had close ties with Arab dictators who could be counted on to muzzle dissent.
Obama’s administration in recent weeks had appeared to overcome some of its initial caution following the election of an Islamist Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, offering his government desperately needed debt relief and backing for international loans.
“The victory in the Libyan elections of nationalist rather than fundamentalist forces, and the rise to power in Egypt of the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood has marginalized the militant strain of Muslim activism …” Juan Cole, a professor of history and a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, wrote on his blog.
“One way the fundamentalist vigilantes can hope to combat their marginalization and political irrelevance in the wake of the Arab Spring is to manufacture a controversy that forces people to side with them. I suspect that is what they were doing in Egypt and Libya, in front of the US embassy in Cairo and at the rump consulate in Benghazi,” Cole added.
Assault on embassy in Cairo Hours before the Benghazi attack, hundreds of mainly ultraconservative Islamist protesters in Egypt marched to the U.S. Embassy in downtown Cairo, gathering outside its walls and chanting against the movie and the United States.
Most of the embassy staff had left the compound earlier because of warnings of the upcoming demonstration.
Although it was not immediately clear if it was related, Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and seat of Sunni learning earlier Tuesday condemned a symbolic “trial” of the prophet organized by a U.S. group including Terry Jones, a Christian pastor who triggered riots in Afghanistan in 2010 by threatening to burn the Koran.
NBC News staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.