Extremists used the cover of an anti-U.S. demonstration in Libya to attack the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi for nearly five hours in a series of fierce and sustained night assaults that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three State Department personnel, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
In the chaos of the attacks, Stevens was separated from his State Department security detail in the flames and smoke of the Consulate’s main building, a senior Obama administration official said in a background briefing.
His body was taken to a Libyan hospital before being returned to U.S. custody at the Benghazi airport, the official said. It was not immediately known who took Stevens’ body to the hospital, or what may have caused his death, the official said.
"Frankly, we’re not clear on the circumstances," said the official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. "We were not able to see him until his body was returned to us at the Benghazi airport."
U.S. officials are investigating whether this was a coordinated attack to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the attack was "a planned, coordinated, well-executed military style event" after he was briefed by the CIA on the attacks.
The U.S. military has responded by sending two destroyers armed with cruise missiles to the Libyan coast, according to multiple reports. Pentagon officials have also rushed a Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team of counter-terror specialists to Tripoli Wednesday to bolster security following the attacks.
Multiple extremists groups in Libya, to include the Ansar al-Shariah Brigade, have been blamed for the attack. However, the brigade put out a vague statement on its website saying it "didn't participate as a sole entity."
The demonstration and attacks in Benghazi on Tuesday followed demonstrations in Cairo in which rioters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy and burned the U.S. flag.
The incidents in both cities were said to have been triggered by an anti-Islam video made in the U.S., although they also occurred on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the U.S. reaction quickly became fodder for the presidential campaigns.
In Benghazi, the attacks began at about 10 p.m. local time on the Consulate grounds, which included a main building, several other structures and an annex some distance away.
About 25-30 U.S. personnel were present. Stevens and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith were in the main building on a regular visit. There were no Marine guards, or even a military attaché posted at the Consulate, which relied mainly on a Libyan security force outside the compound.
Fifteen minutes later, the building was ablaze from rocket-propelled grenades and hand-thrown incendiaries. The U.S. security detail began evacuating other personnel to the annex before Stevens and Smith "became separated from each other."
The security officers fought their way back inside the building "in an attempt to rescue Chris and Sean," the senior official said. Smith’s body was found but they were unable to locate Stevens.
U.S. personnel backed up by Libyan guards tried again to retake the building. They were driven back to the annex where they remained under siege until about 2:30 a.m. local time. During the siege, two more Americans were killed and three wounded, the senior official said.
The demonstrators later sacked and looted the Consulate, even carrying off washing machines, news agencies reported.
All U.S. personnel in Benghazi, and the bodies of the four victims, were flown to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on U.S. military aircraft en route to U.S. bases in Germany.
Pentagon officials said about 50 Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) Marines, whose mission is to "augment installation security when a threat condition is elevated beyond the ability of resident and auxiliary security forces," had already arrived in Tripoli from a U.S. base in Spain.
There were no immediate plans to send other FAST teams to Benghazi or to Cairo, but the U.S. was "increasing security as needed" worldwide at U.S. installations, a Pentagon official said.
"This was an attack by a small and savage group," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington in remarks mourning the four victims suggesting for the first time that extremist elements were responsible.
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens," Obama said.
"Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice and partnership with nations and people around the globe and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives," Obama said.
"Our hearts break," Clinton said at the State Department. The four victims "represent the best tradition of a bold and generous nation," Clinton said, and their deaths will not deter the U.S. from close involvement with Libya and the Mideast. That mission was "both noble and necessary," Clinton said.
In Cairo, the demonstration was blamed on a video that mocked the Prophet Mohammed and was promoted by a Florida pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones, who previously has sparked outrage in the Mideast and Afghanistan by threatening to burn the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Jones Wednesday and "asked Pastor Jones to consider withdrawing his support for the film." "Jones was non-committal," a Pentagon spokesman said.
Before the demonstration at the Cairo Embassy began, the Embassy put out a statement that appeared to be an attempt to defuse tensions.
"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," the statement said.
State Department officials said the statement was not cleared by Washington, but the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly put out a statement in his name saying the remarks were "disgraceful" and amounted to an "apology" to the demonstrators.
"I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America's values is never the right course," Romney said Wednesday.
In statements at the White House, Obama did not respond directly to Romney, but in a later interview with CBS, Obama charged that Romney "has a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman warned against overreaction by the U.S. that would jeopardize U.S. interests in the region and play into the hands of the extremists.
"It may be the duty of the opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America’s strategic interests, lasting relations with key nations in the Middle East, or somehow making this an issue that pits Christian against Muslim or the West against the Arab world," Cordesman wrote in a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is precisely the goal of those violent Islamic extremists that are our real enemies."
"They want the kind of overreaction that discredits secular and moderate Islamic governments in the Arab world and other Muslim states," Cordesman wrote.
Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed by terrorists since 1979, when the envoy to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped and killed during an attempt to rescue him, according to State Department records.
Stevens is the sixth U.S. ambassador to die by violence in the line of service. Two others have been killed in plane crashes.