WASHINGTON: The United States suspects a deadly attack on a US consulate in Libya was a well-planned assault by militants instead of a rampaging mob, US officials said Wednesday, renewing concerns about the role of extremists in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The attackers appear to have used protests over an inflammatory film as a pretext to stage a major assault involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades that lasted several hours, overwhelming the security team at the consulate in Benghazi.
"That's the working hypothesis at the moment," said a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"This was a complex attack," he told. "They seemed to have used this (protest) as an opportunity."
The gunmen, who opened fire on the American consulate and kept US security teams at bay for hours, may have had links to Al-Qaeda or been inspired by the terror network, officials said, stressing that investigators needed more time to gather facts.
"It is too early to definitively attribute the attack to Al-Qaeda or its affiliates," the official said.
However, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said the attack that killed the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three of his staff resembled an Al-Qaeda operation.
"There are still some fuzzy details... but clearly it has all the hallmarks of an Al-Qaeda-style event," the Republican lawmaker told CNN.
Tuesday's assault came amid a wave of protests in Muslim countries against a US-made amateur Internet film that mocks the Prophet Mohammed.
Initial accounts suggested the assault was the result of violent riots but as more details emerged, officials and experts said the evidence pointed to a deliberate plot staged to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
In response to Tuesday's attack, the United States dispatched two naval destroyers to waters off Libya and deployed a 50-strong counter-terrorism team of US Marines to bolster security at its Tripoli embassy.
The United States also has unmanned drone aircraft at its disposal to help Tripoli track militants who may have carried out the attack, officials said.
The surveillance drones have been flying over Libya since the NATO-led air war that helped topple Moamer Kadhafi last year, officials said, adding that Washington enjoys friendly relations with Tripoli and shares intelligence with the new leadership.