- No coincidence attack took place on anniversary of September 11
- Radical Libyan groups fiercely hostile to American and the West
PUBLISHED: 01:34, 13 September 2012 | UPDATED: 01:34, 13 September 2012
The murder of Christopher Stevens is as shocking as it is unprecedented in recent times.
The last assassination of an American ambassador was in Afghanistan, more than three decades ago.
However, the killing of Mr Stevens, who died alongside three other US embassy officials, cannot be written off as an isolated incident.
Rather, it marks an opening salvo by radical groups in Libya who are now poised, with deadly determination, to launch a post-Arab Spring wave of revolution in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. Similar groups across the Middle East will follow their lead.
It is no coincidence the attack took place on the anniversary of September 11, for these groups are fiercely hostile to America and the West.
From Tunisia to Yemen, Egypt to Syria, the emergent extremists have one clear goal: the toppling of the nascent regimes that came to power after last year’s uprisings. Their wish is to impose the strictest form of Islam on society, and espouse hostile views against what they see as the decadent West.
Such groups believe the new regimes are led by pro-Western stooges or secular elites.
And it is not just America these extremists loathe. While the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood which swept to power in Egypt wishes to maintain a long-standing peace treaty with Israel, these Al Qaeda-inspired terror groups dream of wiping the Jewish state off the map.
So this week’s US deaths are the latest power play in a region-wide struggle – one in which Britain involved itself this week when it sent the head of MI6 to encourage the Israelis not to attack Iran.
Blame for the attack on the American consulate has been laid at the door of an ultra-conservative Islamist group, Ansar al-Shariah (Supporters of Shariah). It isn’t their first violent foray.
The group have also been responsible for imposing the segregation of the sexes in public, setting up torture chambers and beating up anyone caught with alcohol.
In June, a vehicle containing the British ambassador to Libya was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, and the US Consulate in Tripoli was also bombed. The group says the attacks were motivated by assassinations of suspected Al Qaeda members in Pakistan by unmanned US drones.
Self-evidently, nearly a year after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya is anything but stable.
The ruling National Transitional Council, largely made up of secularist newcomers and former regime hangers-on, is staunchly pro-West, and was quick to distance itself from the attack on the embassy. But it rules only in name. Libya’s still lawless streets have been overrun by a hodge-podge of Islamist and tribal militias. They refuse to recognise the NTC’s authority, and have assassinated numerous Libyan government officials during recent months.
Spark for the attack on the US consulate, though, was not disaffection with the government, but the release online of clips from the film Innocence of Muslims which attacks the Prophet Mohammed as a paedohile and philanderer.
Offensive, insulting and childish, it may have been intended to help Israel by exposing the threat of Islam. But it is only serving to threaten Israel’s immediate security. The nation’s position in the Middle East is precarious, and the Arab Spring has presented the country with a number of new challenges because it’s security is closely tied to that of Libya and Syria.
Syria has long provided a conduit for Iran to provide aid and weapons to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, and has offered a safe haven for the Hamas leadership.
Both Hezbollah and Hamas are Iran-backed enemies of Israel. If the Assad regime in Syria does fall, many in the West imagine that Iran will be left isolated and vulnerable, and Israel’s established enemies therefore weakened.
However, quite the reverse may happen. There is every chance that the Assad regime would be replaced (as in Libya) by a Western-backed interim government of ‘moderate’ Islamist groups and former regime defectors. Such a government wouldn’t last long.
Foreign jihadists have been flooding into the country. Once Assad is overthrown, they will jump at the chance to seize power and turn their firepower on Israel.
Israel may then find itself confronting an even more determined, uncontrollable and fanatical enemy than any of the pre-Arab Spring regimes ever proved to be.
The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi offers a chilling sign of what lies ahead, not just in Libya, but across the region.
So what can we conclude from these troubling developments?
Primarily, that the West has learned nothing from its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Libya and Syria, Western governments have backed radical Islamist groups, and by doing so have failed to understand that loyalty bought rather than earned is a recipe for disaster.
For while the Islamists are initially eager to take arms and funding from the West, they prove still more eager to turn and use those weapons against their former paymasters
And while the Sunni jihadists in Libya and Syria are no friends of Shia-dominated Iran, their long-term desire to see the destruction of Israel and its American allies transcends such regional rivalries.
Attacks by Islamists last month along Israel’s border with Egypt, the most brazen in decades, show that the danger posed by jihadists is not an intangible fear but a current – and growing – problem.
The storming of the American consulate in Libya, moreover, coincided with a similar storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
This shows yet again that, while the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government may be pro-West, the Egyptian masses are not. They remain as anti-Israel as ever.
An Israeli attack on Iran, or a US bombing of the country at Israel’s behest, will galvanise the Arab world as never before. It will provide the perfect opportunity for radicals to launch a counter-revolution against ‘moderate’ regimes.
It has been said time and time again that the first wave of Arab Spring revolutions were started by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street seller. Could Sam Bacile’s ill-conceived film about the prophet Mohammed similarly prove the catalyst that brings the most formidable enemies of Israel and the West to power?
John R. Bradley is the author of After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts (Palgrave Macmillan)