CAIRO and BENGHAZI, LIBYA // There was growing evidence last night that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed the American ambassador to Libya was a planned terrorist operation rather than a protest against an offensive anti-Muslim movie.
The attack late on Tuesday followed a call by Al Qaeda to avenge the death of a senior Libyan member of the terrorist network killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in June.
The ambassador, J Christopher Stevens, 52, died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the consulate, along with three embassy staff and several Libyan security guards.
The attack was initially assumed to be part a growing regional backlash against a US-made film that defames the Prophet Mohammed. It followed the burning of American flags in protests at the US embassies in Cairo and Tunis.
Sean Smith, an information management officer, also died in the attack, and 14 Americans and 18 Libyans were injured.
The ambassador was visiting Benghazi to inaugurate an American culture centre in the city. He was the first US ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
Several photographs were circulated in Libya yesterday showing Stevens's lifeless, half-dressed body being carried amid a crowd of people. The images show his skin covered in soot, his lips purple and his face grey.
Libyans took the ambassador to a hospital, where doctors concluded he had died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation. A doctor who treated him said the ambassador was practically dead when he arrived close to 1am yesterday. "We tried to revive him for an hour and a half but with no success," Dr Abu Zeid said.
Stevens had bleeding in his stomach because of the asphyxiation but no other injuries, the doctor said.
Many of the attackers were from Ansar Al Sharia, an extremist group that has chapters across the region, according to Osama Faitory, a Libyan journalist who witnessed the attack.
The protests were reminiscent of those triggered in 2005 by the publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper. More than 100 people were killed in riots and attacks on Danish embassies in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon and Iran in the months afterward.
Benghazi, once the cradle of a Nato-backed revolt against Muammar Qaddafi, has become a hotbed of tribal and Islamist militia activity.
On Monday, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri called on Muslims, especially Libyans, to avenge the killing of Hassan Mohammed Qaed, better known as Abu Yahya Al Libi, a Libyan-born imam who was a key aide to Osama bin Laden.
The US president, Barack Obama, condemned the killings and ordered security to be increased at US embassies around the world.
He praised the Libyan government and Libyan forces who fought back trying to protect American diplomats, who "exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice and partnership with nations and people around the globe".
The UAE Foreign Ministry also condemned the attack, and called for a quick and transparent investigation to bring those responsible to justice.
In Benghazi last night, Ibrahim Shebani, 30, joined about 200 hundred other demonstrators to condemn the attack.
"We want to show the world that what happened yesterday was not Libya. These are not Libyans," he said. "The security is not good. If the city is safe at all it is because of the people. Everyone I know is condemning what happened yesterday."
More than 2,000 protesters also converged on the US embassy in Cairo on Tuesday night, where the American flag was torn down, burnt and replaced with a black flag bearing religious verses. Several protesters scaled the wall surrounding the embassy, but did not venture further inside.
During renewed protests yesterday afternoon, a group of several dozen men demanded that the president, Mohammed Morsi, and other senior Egyptian officials condemn the blasphemous movie.
As one man slapped the pavement with his bare hands, a group of men chanted "Tomorrow we will be joined by millions". And they taunted the president, asking if "you love the Prophet or not?"
Mr Morsi did not make a public statement about the attack on the US embassy, but the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said the film was "a racist crime and a failed attempt to provoke sectarian strife between the two elements of the nation: Muslims and Christians".
Sayed Nazali, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Shura Council, said yesterday that the Brotherhood was calling for a demonstration tomorrow against the film.
"The purpose is to sound a warning bell for such acts, which we believe the Zionists are behind, that this is a dangerous area that you should never come near," he said. "We oppose any violence against embassies and believe the killers of embassy staff in Libya should be brought to trial, but it is difficult to control the anger of the youths after this insult."
Ali Gomaa, Egypt's Grand Mufti, "vehemently denounced" the film.
The previously little-known video that sparked the protests, Innocence of the Muslims, has not been fully released but a 14-minute trailer was posted on the internet in July. By September, the footage had been dubbed into Arabic, which precipitated an explosion of anger from communities in the Middle East as word spread on internet message boards, social media and religious talk shows. YouTube has continued to leave the video on the internet, but has now blocked access to it in Egypt.
Yesterday Mr Morsi asked the Egyptian embassy in Washington to take legal action against the makers of the film.
It is forbidden in Islam to depict the Prophet Mohammed at all, but the film also disparages the story of his life.
The attacks on US embassies will come as a wake-up call about the security of diplomatic posts, and about the nature of some extremist groups in Libya.
"Although there was already increasing awareness of radical Islamist sentiments in eastern Libya, and in fact through the whole country, their full extent and their threshold for violence was unknown," said Geoff Porter, the head of North Africa Risk Consulting in the US state of Connecticut. "There is a new strain of terrorism in Libya that is growing increasingly dangerous."
The murdered ambassador was a popular figure in Libya during the uprising among the members of the National Transitional Council and, after the death of Muammar Qaddafi, among the new government. He spoke Arabic and had a strong command of Middle Eastern history after serving in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh and twice in Libya.
A National reporter met Stevens in Benghazi in September 2011, less than two months before Qaddafi was killed in Sirte. He spoke warmly of the rebels fighting Qaddafi loyalists and his love of working in the Middle East. Only one Marine guarded him at a cafe in the Fadheel Hotel near the makeshift consulate, as he drank a mint tea and smoked an apple shisha.
"We feel quite safe here," he said.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters