WASHINGTON — The United States suspects a deadly attack on a US consulate in Libya was a well-planned assault by militants instead of a rampaging mob, a senior US official told AFP Wednesday.
"That's the working hypothesis at the moment," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The extremists appear to have used protests over a controversial film as a pretext to stage an assault involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades that lasted several hours, overwhelming the security team at the consulate in Benghazi.
"This was a complex attack," he said. "They seemed to have used this (protest) as an opportunity."
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said the attack that killed the US ambassador and three of his staff resembled an Al-Qaeda operation.
"There are still some fuzzy details... but clearly it has all the hallmarks of an Al-Qaeda-style event," the Republican told CNN.
Tuesday's assault by armed men on the US consulate came amid a wave of protests in the Muslim world against a US-made amateur Internet film deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
Initial accounts suggested the assault in Benghazi was the result of violent riots but as more details emerged Wednesday, US officials and terrorism experts said the evidence pointed to a deliberate plot.
Rogers, a former FBI agent, said he suspected the attack was meant to coincide with the 11th anniversary of Al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
"This was a well-sophisticated coordinated event. I believe this was timed to happen on this date," he said, however adding: "We don't know that for sure as of today."
Senior administration officials described to reporters a harrowing siege of the consulate that began with gunfire at about 10:00 pm and that lasted for more than three hours until Libyan forces moved in to restore order.
Within 45 minutes after gunfire targeted the consulate, attackers breached the wall of the compound.
Security appeared to have collapsed as guards searched for Ambassador Chris Stevens amid a barrage of gunfire and flames but could not locate him, the official said.
A picture taken by an AFP photographer shows what witnesses say is an injured Stevens being helped by Libyans inside the compound. He later was reportedly taken to a Benghazi hospital by Libyans but US officials say they did not see him until his corpse was transported to the local airport.
It was unclear how long a protest over the film had been underway before the shooting started, a second administration official told reporters.
"We frankly don't have a full picture of what may have been going on outside the compound walls before the firing began," the official said.
US officials in Libya had conducted a security review in the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary but had seen no intelligence reporting that hinted of a heightened threat of attack, the official said.
The consulate, which includes a number of buildings, had "robust" security, including local forces posted outside, a perimeter of physical barriers and a security team employed by the State Department.
A unit of US Marines guards the US embassy in Tripoli but the consulate in Benghazi, unlike some American diplomatic outposts, had no team of Marines on the ground.
Experts said the assault was almost certainly the work of Islamist militants, inspired or sponsored by Al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
"I think you had a well planned and highly armed attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that underscores how dangerous the situation is in Libya from a security perspective," said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Extremists have sought to exploit a power vacuum in Libya since the fall of Moamer Kadhafi last year, analysts said.
"We have known for a long time, since the fall of Kadhafi, that there are groups that remain outside of the control of the government, that they are well armed," Coleman said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »