White House Says Attack in Libya May Have Been Planned

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A vehicle sits smoldering in flames after being set on fire inside the American consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012.
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The violence in the Middle East that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi late on the night of September 11 has extended beyond Libya into Egypt, Yemen, Iran, and Tunisia. The video that sparked the violence, still of ambiguous origin, "insults most of all its own maker" says David Kirkpatrick, Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times. "The thing is of low quality, cheap humor… It's not even an effective insult." 

"At the same time," Kirkpatrick adds, "around the Arab world, the U.S. is intensely unpopular, and has been for some time, because of decades of policy." The events in Libya, however, are a bit more perplexing. The United States, and particularly Ambassador Stevens, were very supportive in the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi, which makes this turn of events all the more shocking.

Kirkpatrick cites the lack of real authority in Libya as being the main factor that allowed such a thing to occur. "The country is still run by a lot of ad hoc brigades that were formed to overthrow Qaddafi, and continue to parade around the streets… In that sort of atmosphere, where you have all these guns in the streets, and all these groups already organized with some military training roaming around, it's not that hard for things to go awry."
"At the same time," he says, "in Benghazi… the overwhelming sense last night was 'Oh my gosh, what have we done?'" 

Officials from the Obama administration say they suspect that the attack may have been planned, and that the protests over the anti-Islamic video may have served as a cover for more organized actions. 

Vijay Preshad, chair of South Asian history and director of the international studies department at Trinity College and author of "Arab Spring, Libyan Winter," is not convinced that this was a planned operation, or even an isolated incident of violence against western institutions in Libya. He references a series of smaller occurrences earlier this year, suggesting that perhaps this attack may have escalated beyond what was intended. 

Preshad cautions against oversimplifying the situation, and assuming that "they're just terrorists, and we need to respond to them with Tomahawk missiles."

"There is not one view in Libya, there is not one view in Egypt… But we shouldn't exaggerate either side — in other words, it's not worth saying, 'Well the real Libyans are appalled, or the real Libyans are celebrating.' There is a contradiction in Libyan society and we need to see it like that."