Libya says US consulate attack ‘pre-planned’

President Magarief, in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, says he believes al-Qaeda is responsible.

Benghazi, Libya – The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans and ten Libyans was the work of “experienced masterminds” that had been planned well in advance, the Libyan president says.

“I think this was al-Qaeda,” President Mohamed al-Magarief told Al Jazeera on Friday, in his first interview with foreign media since the violence three days earlier.

“If you take into account the weapons used like RPGs and other heavy weapons, it proves that it was pre-planned,” he said. “It’s a dirty act of revenge that has nothing to do with religion.”

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His comments to Al Jazeera marked the first time his government has openly attributed acts of violence to religious extremists.

Libya’s deputy interior minister had blamed the attack on Gaddafi loyalists on Wednesday. 

While Gaddafi loyalists maintained a presence inside Libya, Magarief said, there was no chance that they were behind the attack that killed four US consular staff members.

There were only a few al-Qaeda members active in Libya, he said, but they were profiting from the security vacuum and had managed to infiltrate the security forces.

Arms proliferation

One of the biggest factors contributing to the ongoing instability in Libya is the proliferation of arms left over from the 2011 conflict that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, combined with a central government severely weakened by tribal rivalries. 

Magarief told Al Jazeera that he would be taking action to disarm the militias.”Definitely we have to depend on the militias themselves [to co-operate with being disarmed], and of course, before that, the army,” he said.

Many of the protesters in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square called for militias to be disbanded [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

Around a hundred people protested in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square on Friday evening, with many of them calling for the country’s security forces to be strengthened and the militias to be disbanded.

Khalid El Kadiki, who had helped organise the protest, argued that the government needed to do more to empower the army and the police so that extremist groups would not be free to carry out further violent attacks.

Asked if he had faith in the president’s promises to disarm the militias, he said that Magarief “makes lots of promises, but does nothing”.

Khadija Fitour, who was attending the protest with her two teenage daughters, was carrying a sign demanding that the government assert its authority over armed groups.

“We’re against the terrorism and the violence against the US consulate,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We need to maintain good relations with the American people. They helped us with our revolution.”

In another example of the state’s vulnerability to the armed groups, the airspace over Benghazi was closed for several hours on Friday morning after opposition fighters allegedly threatened to shoot down US drones flying over the area.

Investigation under way

The Libyan authorities began examining the scene of Wednesday’s violence late on Friday afternoon, a military spokesperson told Al Jazeera, while Libyan soldiers stood guard outside the US consulate.

Ahmed Faraj, the spokesperson, told Al Jazeera the investigative team had arrived at around 4pm local time (2:00 GMT).

The Libyan authorities arrested four people in relation to the killings on Thursday, according to reports by Reuters news agency. 

The bodies of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods arrived in the US on Friday, news wires reported.

“They had a duty and they believed in it, they lived the American ideal with courage, the hope and the ideals of the fundamental American beliefs,” President Barack Obama was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, in honour of the victims.

“Their sacrifice will never be forgotten, we will bring justice to those who took them from us.”

— With additional reporting from Hoda Abdel-Hamid in Benghazi

Follow Yasmine Ryan (@YasmineRyan) and Hoda Abdel-Hamid (@HodaAH) on Twitter