CAIRO — The attack Tuesday on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the climax of weeks of rising insecurity in Libya that saw assassination attempts against government officials, standoffs between militias, car bombings in the capital and threats against diplomats, including Americans.
The increasing instability caused the U.S. State Department in late August to warn Americans against all but essential travel to Libya.
In recent months, threats against foreign embassies from Islamic extremists had become a regular feature of Libyan news reports, and attacks on foreign diplomats happened with surprising regularity. In June, a British diplomatic convoy was attacked, and last month gunmen in Tripoli attempted to seize a vehicle carrying U.S. Embassy staff, though it remains unclear whether that attack was an attempted carjacking or an effort to kidnap the embassy staffers. Robberies and carjackings have spiked in Libya as general security has deteriorated in the year since Moammar Gadhafi was toppled.
At 4 a.m. Sunday, two bombs were thrown at the Benghazi home of a military commander in Sebha, 40 miles south of Tripoli. Only one went off; the other failed to explode. Nobody was hurt.
But other Benghazi attacks have been deadly. Earlier this summer, a Libyan military intelligence officer was killed when the car he and a colleague were traveling in blew up in Benghazi, the same day several large arms caches were uncovered by security forces in the eastern city. The intelligence officer's colleague was seriously injured.
Fourteen other current and former military officials, many of them defectors from Gadhafi to the rebels, have been assassinated in Benghazi so far this year, and there have been numerous other attempted assassinations. Libyan intelligence officials allege that a hit list containing more than 100 names has been drawn up.
In other violence, conservative Islamists known as Salafists in the past month have attacked and destroyed several shrines, graves and mosques of the Sufi branch of Islam. Members of the police and the Supreme Security Committee, which oversees the country's nascent military, watched as Tripoli's Sidi Shaab Mosque and the Abdel Salam al-Asmar shrine in Zlidan, 100 miles east of Tripoli, were razed by armed Salafists. A mosque in Misrata, 90 miles east of Tripoli, was also destroyed.
Some of the attackers were reported to be serving members of the Supreme Security Committee, an amalgamation of militias and Libyan security forces. Some members of the government accused Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Al, whose ministry oversees the country's police functions, of collusion in the desecrations.
Emboldened by the lack of state intervention, the Salafists attacked several other mosques near Benghazi and Tripoli last week, though local residents fought back, killing several Salafists and injuring more. The Islamists have promised revenge.