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US Investigates: Attacks Coordinated To Mark 9/11?

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FILE - U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens stands in the lobby of the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya in this April 11, 2011 file photo. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File) FILE - U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens stands in the lobby of the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya in this April 11, 2011 file photo. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration, roiled by the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years, is investigating whether the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a planned terrorist strike to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks and not a spontaneous mob enraged over an anti-Islam YouTube video.

President Barack Obama declared in a White House appearance that the U.S. would "work with the Libyan government to bring to justice" those who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Intelligence officers said the attack on the Benghazi consulate was "too coordinated or professional to be spontaneous," according to a U.S. counterterrorism official.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said it was too early to judge whether the attack was planned.

"I know that this is being investigated, and we're working with the Libyan government to investigate the incident. I would not want to speculate on that at this time," he said. Several Libyan security guards also were killed.

The FBI was sending evidence teams to Libya, said a law enforcement official.

Analysts are working on several different scenarios based on intelligence that could lead to a motive for the attack. Some concern the possibility of targeting high-ranking officials, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation. But none of the intelligence has suggested terrorists would specifically target Stevens, said the official who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.

The attack in Libya, which came hours after a mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the U.S. flag, was presumed to have been triggered by a movie, whose trailer has gone viral on YouTube, depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in disrespectful ways. In an extraordinary move, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called anti-Islamic preacher Terry Jones and asked him to stop promoting the film. A spokeswoman said the church would not show the film Wednesday evening.

"Make no mistake. Justice will be done," a somber Obama pledged at the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side.

He ordered increased security at U.S. diplomatic missions overseas, particularly in Libya, and said he condemned "in the strongest possible terms the outrageous and shocking" attack. Clinton said she was particularly appalled that the attack took place in Benghazi, which the U.S. had helped liberate from dictator Moammar Gadhafi during the Arab Spring revolution in Libya last year.

Three Americans were wounded, U.S. officials said.

The aftermath of the two attacks also stirred the U.S. presidential campaign, where until Wednesday, foreign policy had taken a back seat to the struggling economy.

The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, criticized the administration for statements issued before and after the Cairo attacks that expressed sympathy for those insulted by the video.

"I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions," Romney told a morning news conference. "It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values."

Obama said later than Romney "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."

Obama and Clinton made a rare joint visit to the State Department, where grieving colleagues of Stevens and the other three Americans killed in Benghazi gathered in a courtyard. The president also ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff at government and military buildings and vessels around the world until sunset on Sept. 16. Flags had already been lowered in many places to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Clinton denounced those who might kill over an insulting movie.

"There is no justification for this," Clinton said. "None. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith and as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace."

Underscoring the administration's frustration, Clinton wondered aloud about the attack in Benghazi, which Gadhafi had once threatened to destroy.

"This is not easy," she said. "Today, many Americans are asking, indeed I asked myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, just how confounding, the world can be."

"But we must be clear-eyed in our grief," she said, saying the attack was carried out by a "small and savage group" not representative of the Libyan people. She noted that Libyan security guards had tried to fight off the attackers, had carried Stevens' body to the hospital and led other consulate employees to safety.

Stevens, a 52-year-old career diplomat, was killed after he became separated from other American officials during the consulate attack. It's unclear when he died: He was taken by Libyans to a hospital, and his remains were delivered hours later to U.S. officials at the Benghazi airport.

Stevens is the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in an attack since 1979, when Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed in Afghanistan.

Three other Americans were also killed and the State Department identified one of them as Sean Smith, an Air Force veteran who had worked as an information management officer for 10 years in posts such as Brussels, Baghdad and Pretoria. Smith was also well-known in the video game community.

The identities of the others were being withheld pending notification of relatives.

"The mission that drew Chris and Sean and their colleagues to Libya is both noble and necessary, and we and the people of Libya honor their memory by carrying it forward," Clinton said.

U.S. officials said some 50 Marines were being sent to Libya to reinforce security at U.S. diplomatic facilities.

Stevens spoke Arabic and French and had already served two tours in Libya, including running the office in Benghazi during the revolt against Gadhafi. He was confirmed as ambassador to Libya by the Senate earlier this year.

The FBI was sending evidence teams to Libya, a law enforcement official said.

Libya's new leadership — scrambling to preserve ties with Washington after U.S. help to overthrow former dictator Moammar Gadhafi — vowed to find those behind the attack. Interim President Mohammed el-Megarif apologized to the United States for what he called the "cowardly" assault, which also killed several Libyan security guards at the consulate in the eastern city.

Parliament speaker Omar al-Houmidan suggested the attack might have been planned, saying the mob "may have had foreign loyalties" — an apparent reference to international terrorists. "We are not sure. Everything is possible," he said.

A Libyan jihadist group, the Omar Abdel-Rahman Brigades, claimed responsibility for a bomb that went off outside the Benghazi consulate in June, causing no injuries. The group, which also carried out several attacks on the International Red Cross in Libya, said at the time that the bomb was revenge for the killing of al-Qaida's No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.

About 50 U.S. Marines were sent to Libya to guard U.S. diplomatic facilities. The Marines are members of an elite group known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST, whose role is to respond on short notice to terrorism threats and to reinforce security at embassies.

The Marines, sent from a base in Spain, were headed initially to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, not to Benghazi, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The consulate attack illustrated the breakdown in security in Libya, where the government is still trying to establish authority months after Gadhafi's fall.

There also were indications that two distinct attacks took place — one on the consulate, then a second hours later early Wednesday on a nearby house to which the staff had been evacuated.

The crowd of several thousand that descended on the consulate was armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, said Wanis el-Sharef, the deputy interior minister of Libya's eastern region.

A small contingent of Libyan security protecting the facility fired in the air, trying to intimidate the mob. But faced with superior size and firepower, the Libyan security withdrew, el-Sharef said. Gunmen stormed the building, looted its contents and torched it, he said.

Details of how the Americans were killed were still unclear.

Stevens, 52, and a consulate staffer who had stayed behind in the building died in the initial attack, el-Sharef said. The rest of the staff successfully evacuated to a nearby building, preparing to move to Benghazi Airport after daybreak to fly to the capital of Tripoli, he said.

Hours after the storming of the consulate, a separate group of gunmen attacked the other building, opening fire on the more than 30 Americans and Libyans inside. Two more Americans were killed, he said.

Dr. Ziad Abu Zeid, who treated Stevens, told The Associated Press that he died of asphyxiation, apparently from smoke. In a sign of the chaos, Stevens was brought by Libyans to the Benghazi Medical Center with no other Americans, and no one at the facility knew who he was, Abu Zeid said.

He said he tried to revive Stevens for about 90 minutes "with no success." The ambassador was bleeding in his stomach because of the asphyxiation but had no other injuries, the doctor said.

Widely regarded as one of the most effective American envoys to the Arab world, Stevens brokered tribal disputes and conducted U.S. outreach efforts in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh. As a rising star in U.S. foreign policy, he retuned to Libya four months ago, determined to see a democracy rise where Gadhafi's dictatorship flourished for four decades.

Smith, 34, was an Air Force veteran who had worked as an information management officer for 10 years in posts such as Brussels, Baghdad and Pretoria. Smith was also well-known in the video game community.

The bloodshed stunned many Libyans, especially since Stevens was a popular envoy among different factions and politicians, including Islamists, and was seen as a supporter of their uprising against Gadhafi.

The leader of Ansar al-Shariah, an armed ultraconservative Islamist group, denied any involvement in the attack.

"We never approve of killing civilians, especially those who helped us," Youssef Jihani said in a reference to Stevens. "We are well-educated and religious."

The violence in Libya raised worries that further protests could break out around the Muslim world, but the reaction was limited.

The movie, "Innocence of Muslims," came to attention in Egypt after its trailer was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. The video-sharing website blocked access to it Wednesday. The trailer depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.

In Cairo, some 200 Islamists staged a second day of protest outside the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday, but there were no more attempts to scale the embassy walls. After nightfall, the group dwindled and some protesters scuffled with police, who fired tear gas and dispersed them, emptying the streets.

In a statement on his official Facebook page, Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the movie, saying the government was responsible for protecting diplomatic missions as well as the freedom of speech and peaceful protest.

But, he added, authorities "will confront with full determination any irresponsible attempt to break the law."

Romney's criticism of Obama didn't mesh completely with events in Cairo.

A U.S. Embassy statement that Romney referred to as akin to apology was issued by the Cairo embassy at midday on Tuesday at a time the staff was aware of still-peaceful demonstrations nearby. It was four or five hours later when the mob breached the compound's walls and tried to burn a U.S. flag, and later still when the Libya attack happened.

The embassy statement condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," and noted that religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy.

About 50 protesters burned American flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia's capital Wednesday but were kept away from the building by reinforced security. And in Gaza City, dozens of protesters carrying swords, axes and black flags chanted "Shame on everyone who insults the prophet." The rally was organized by supporters of a militant group aligned with the ruling Hamas movement.

Afghanistan's government sought to avert any protests. President Hamid Karzai condemned the movie, and authorities also temporarily shut down access to YouTube, said Aimal Marjan, general director of Information Technology at the Ministry of Communications.

The search for those behind "Innocence of Muslims" led to a California Coptic Christian convicted of financial crimes who acknowledged his role in managing and providing logistics for the production.

A man identifying himself as Sam Bacile told the AP on Tuesday that he wrote, produced and directed the film.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told the AP in an interview outside Los Angeles that he was manager for the company that produced "Innocence of Muslims."

Nakoula denied directing the film and said he knew Bacile. But the cellphone number that the AP used Tuesday to reach the man who identified himself as Bacile was traced to the same address near Los Angeles where the AP found Nakoula. Federal court papers said Nakoula's aliases included Nicola Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.

Nakoula told the AP that he was a Coptic Christian and said the film's director supported the concerns of Christian Copts about their treatment by Muslims.

Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.

Nakoula denied posing as Bacile. During a conversation outside his home, he offered his driver's license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found the name "Basseley" and other connections to the Bacile persona.

Bacile told the AP he was an Israeli-born, 56-year-old, Jewish writer and director. But a Christian activist involved in the film project, Steve Klein, said Wednesday that "Bacile" was a pseudonym, that he was not Jewish or Israeli, and a group of Americans of Mideast origin collaborated on the film. Officials in Israel also said there was no record of Bacile as an Israeli citizen.

And even though Bacile told AP he was 56, he identified himself on his YouTube profile as 74. Bacile also said he is a real estate developer, but his name does not appear in searches of California state licenses, including the Department of Real Estate.

Film industry groups and permit agencies said they had no records of "Innocence of Muslims." A man who answered a phone listed for the Vine Theater, a faded Hollywood movie house, confirmed the movie had run for a least a day, and possibly longer, several months ago, arranged by a customer known as "Sam."

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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