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Tunisian protesters break into the U.S. embassy in Tunis
Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian protesters break into the U.S. embassy in Tunis

Mideast madness

Islam | Provoked or premeditated, the latest round of uprisings put the United States in its sights

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

Protests outside the U.S. consulate in Alexandria on Friday and Saturday did not keep worshippers away from St. Mark's Anglican Church on Sunday. "I preached on 'how to live in peace in a multi-religious society,'" said Emad Mikhail. "I used the model of Daniel and his friends. They held fast to their beliefs and spoke about their God. But they always did so respectfully and without insulting the Babylonians."

Alexandria, the second-largest city in Egypt, saw its share of the violence that began in Cairo on Sept. 11 when protesters—claiming a short film made in the United States insults their prophet Muhammad—stormed the walls of the U.S. embassy, tore down and torched its U.S. flag.

A similar mob that succeeded in breaching the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi that evening killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and set off a chain of violence and protests across the Muslim world.

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In a week's time dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded in fiery, bloody protests ostensibly provoked by Innocence of Muslims, a 14-minute video clip allegedly made in California and launched recently on YouTube.

At least six police and soldiers were injured in Alexandria's Sept. 14 rioting, but "things are normal here," said Mikhail several days later. In addition to preaching at St. Mark's, he is president of the evangelical Alexandria School of Theology.

Elsewhere in the region life was anything but normal, as attacks on U.S. missions led the Obama administration to call for the evacuation of hundreds of diplomatic personnel and insertion of U.S. forces. In Yemen, about 50 U.S. Marines with armored vehicles arrived to protect the embassy in Sanaa after protests and violence killed at least four Yemenis, injured about 50, and destroyed more than 60 vehicles in the embassy area.

As anti-American unrest spread throughout the Muslim world, attacks multiplied to over 20 countries. Afghanistan's Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on a base Sept. 15 that killed two U.S. Marines, saying it was in response to the film. Rioters set fire to an American school in Tunisia near the U.S. embassy, prompting the evacuation of embassy personnel to Germany. With three U.S. Navy warships and an expeditionary force out of Camp Pendleton heading to the region, the Pentagon deployed elite U.S. Marine units (called "fleet anti-terrorism security teams") to Libya and Tunisia. Sudan, however, refused to allow Marines to enter after violence erupted near the U.S. embassy in Khartoum—prompting the evacuation of U.S. personnel there as well.

Ongoing threats of violence issued by al-Qaeda and other militants, coupled with the new U.S. deployments, mean the question of U.S. security in the region will stay on the front burner. The United States has more than 265 embassies worldwide, and—in the wake of attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998 and with 9/11—the State Department has completed construction of 80 new diplomatic installations overseas, with 22 currently underway.

Nearly all that effort stems from a 1999 counterterrorism law that required embassies to move or consolidate and improve facilities in order to meet new security requirements.

Embassy security appropriations have fallen since 2009, but even so the State Department last year spent roughly $3 million per embassy for security upgrades. With billions already used to protect the overseas posts—and $1.64 billion slated for embassy construction and security in 2013—lawmakers and taxpayers will be asking whether they are getting their money's worth.

The Obama administration seems intent to deflect questions and scrutiny over September riots as well as ongoing security, especially at U.S. installations in a region that has been in turmoil now for nearly two years. The White House disavowed a statement issued by the Cairo embassy on the morning of Sept. 11 condemning "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" after it drew scorn for limiting free speech.

Then it denied that U.S. intelligence could have foreseen the attacks and targeting of an American official. But many officials and experts have been warning about new threats from Salafi groups stepping into the leadership vacuums created by Arab uprisings. "Their goals are the most anti-Western of any Islamist parties," Robin Wright, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in August. Yet from Alexandria to Yemen, U.S. policymakers have said or done little about growing Salafi influence since uprisings began in Tunisia in December 2010.

Obama officials also deny that organized Islamic groups have anything to do with what appear to be coordinated attacks in September. Of the deadly assault in Benghazi, U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said, "What happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent. And those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control."

—with reporting by Jamie Dean, J.C. Derrick, and Jill Nelson

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