Will Sept. 11 continue to be remembered as the day of the worst terrorist attack against American soil and also when the United States became embroiled in Islam's cultural disputes?
The killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other American Consulate employees coincided with the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. What distinguishes the tragedy are the circumstances it occurred under and the potential participants:
-- The event transpired against the backdrop of protests regarding of an anti-Islamic film.
-- This is the first time since the 9/11 attacks that American civilian, business, and/or diplomatic facilities were targeted due to an anti-Islamic cultural event.
-- An Al Qaeda link to the consulate attack is a possibility.
-- Washington will probably augment its counter-terrorism operations in northern Africa.
The ambassador's death occurred during protests at the consulate regarding a controversial film about Islam. The movie is a 14-minute YouTube video entitled "Innocence of Muslims." It was directed by a U.S.-based Israeli-American, Sam Bacile, who contended that the film was designed to highlight Islam's hateful nature.
The film illustrates the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer, and a killer. It infuriated Muslims, since any kind of image of Mohammed - negative or positive - is prohibited by Islam.
The movie received very little attention in the United States. The protests infuriated many Muslims after segments of the film were aired on Egyptian TV. The protests have spread to other Islamic countries: Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Tunisia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the film "disgusting and reprehensible" in an effort to distance the U.S. government from any perception of supporting the film. The killings of the U.S. ambassador and his colleaguess might not have attracted the American public's eye if the tragedy had not occurred on Sept. 11and during protests over an anti-Islamic issue.
The assaults were a first since the 9/11 attacks. Various riots and protests have occurred whenever different Islamic-related icons have been desecrated. The burning of the Koran by NATO soldiers and the publication of blasphemous cartoons of Mohammed by a Danish newspaper are the most notable examples. American diplomatic, business and civilian facilities-personnel have avoided being attacked during those and related anti-Islamic events until now.
There is a strong possibility the attacks have an Al Qaeda link. The consulate assault transpired a day after Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for his group's followers to avenge the death of a senior Libyan Al Qaeda leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in June. The operation occurred in two waves -- a sophistication witnessed in Al Qaeda attacks.
A third possible connection relates to its timing. Al Qaeda-type attacks tend to occur on or around significant political events. The operation also transpired against the backdrop of anti-U.S. protests. And finally, there is speculation that an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, executed the attacks.
What needs ascertaining is whether Al Qaeda or its affiliates were involved and to what extent. This can't be discounted, since there are five militant Islamist commanders operating in eastern Libya. One of those, Abdulbasit Azuz, was dispatched to the area by al-Zawahiri in spring 2011 to establish an operating base for Al Qaeda. There are also 200-300 jihadists in eastern Libya, some of whom are connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb.
Major questions surrounding the consulate :
-- Were any of the above leaders or jihadist fighters directly involved in the planning and execution of the operation?
-- Did Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb play any kind of role? What did it entail, if so? Did any of its operatives participate? Was it involved in the training of the attacks' operatives? Did it furnish any weaponry? And/or did it provide any funding?
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb will become a higher priority within U.S. counterterrorism circles if their involvement is discovered. Washington is currently involved in various operations against the group in conjunction with different North African countries.
The region will become a new major theater within the American counterterrorism community if Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb is determined to have participated in the ambassador's killing. The U.S. will probably expand its efforts at purging eastern Libya of any Al Qaeda, or connecting jihadist elements if Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb is absolved of any participation.
The chances are high that American foreign policy towards the Middle East and north Africa will not change.
Washington will continue supporting the activists and other reformist elements participating in the ongoing Arab Spring. What may change is the level of counterterrorism involvement in the region.
It's entirely contingent upon Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb, and the level of participation it had -- if any -- in the ambassador's killing.
Matthew Kennedy has a master's degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He's lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.