Libyan Embassy Attack – Whose Responsibility Is It?


Under the provisions of international law, freedom of religion is taken as a fundamental human right that should not be taken from any individual under any circumstances unless resulting in threatening human life. Recently, violence sprang in Libya, which spread across several Arab countries over what protestors called ‘American disregard of Muslim religious saints’ through a film that showed disloyalty to Prophet Mohammad. In Libya, this violence prompted the death of the ambassador of the U.S to Libya besides three of his assistants. This case is analyzed in the context of international law on religious freedom and freedom of expression. The position taken in the paper is that killing amounts to a criminal activity tantamount to a breach of international law. The goal of this is to review the US and international law besides looking for points of intersection, commonality, and divergence.

The United States and Libyan Laws

Opposed to the US’ laws, in Libya, there is open support of one religion by the government’s legal framework works even though prosecution of other religions’ followers is restricted. Indeed, 97 percent of Libya’s population subscribes to the Islam faith. The three percent population that subscribes entirely to Christianity is composed of foreigners (Hellyler, 2012, Para.6). This implies that there is a restriction of freedom of religion among the indigenous people of Libya. This is evidenced by the open preference to Islam religion by the Libyan leaders. This preference is echoed in chapter II of the Libyan constitution in article 5, which, according to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1951), provides, “Islam is the religion of the State” (p.221). However, amid the preference of Islam, the laws of Libya are opposed to strains of Islamic extremists who are largely seen by law as posing a threat to the nation. For instance, the government enacted laws that resulted in banning of Sanisiyya.

This Islamic order was replaced by ICS (Islamic call society) by Colonel Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi. ICS became recognized under the Libya’s religious laws as an arm of Islam constituting the Libyan government’s Islam foreign policy. Unlike Islamic extremists organizations, ICS is mandated to liaise with other religions such as Christianity. Through ICS, the government gives its views on Islam. In America, the government advocates for the right of subscription into any region without giving directions in the interpretation of building blocks of any religion. This means that the U.S. religious laws allow people to form their own interpretations of the religion. However, this is not the case in Libya. The Libyan government gives interpretation of state-accepted form of Islam through ICS. Precisely, the Libyan Islamic institutions depend on the approved interpretation offered by the government on what constitutes the Muslim faith as provided by the Islamic religion. However, amid this control, people are hardly harassed for participation or involvement in any religious activity unless it reflects some political motivation and or dimension (Hellyler, 2012, Para.8). This compares with the U.S’ rights of worship and subscription to any religion in that, among universal human rights advocated for by the US laws, there is the right of engaging in any religious activity unless it poses a threat to the American people’s lives.

In chapter II, entitled the ‘rights of the people’, the constitution of Libya adopts laws similar to those of the U.S. The chapter sets out political rights, equal responsibilities while executing public duties, equal opportunities, and equal obligation to subscribe to the requirements of the laws set out in the constitution. With regard to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1951), article 11 stipulates that all these concerns of rights of people need to be executed without “distinction of religion, belief, race, language, wealth, kinship or political or social opinions” (p.228). While such provisions in the U.S. apply to all people living within the demarcations of the United States of America including immigrants and other foreigners, the applicability of these provisions in Libya to foreigners are questionable especially upon noting the circumstances leading to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya- Christopher Stevens and his assistants.

The Royal Institute of International Affairs (1951) informs that, under the provision of the supreme source of the Libyan laws-the constitution, article 16 of chapter II points, “No one may be arrested, detained, imprisoned or searched except in the cases prescribed by law” (p.332). The Royal Institute of International Affairs (1951) further continues to assert, “No one shall, under any circumstances, be tortured by anyone or subjected to punishment degrading to him” (p.332). Unfortunately, some instances in Libya show breach of this provision. For instance, in the year 2002, the people’s court based in Tripoli sentenced Abdullah Ahmed Izzedin and his accomplice Salem Abu Hanak to the death penalty. These two individuals were among 152 persons that were arrested and charged on accounts of involvement in Islamic organizations in Benghazi. Amnesty International reported that all of the 152 people were held in unknown locations for a period of 2 years with their lawyers and family members being denied to talk to them and or access their case files (Hellyler, 2012, Para.4). With the killing of the ambassador of the US to Libya, the question of the capacity of Libya to protect people’s rights gets even further questionable. Some questions that may arise include:

  1. Was the killing of the ambassador an act of terrorism?
  2. Was it organized and planned?

Case description and analysis

Facts and suppositions of the event

Sam Bacile, a developer of real estate, who resided in California is believed to be the producer of a trailer film depicting Prophet Mohammad in what the film reviewer terms as ‘a philanderer’. Following the senseless killing of Christopher Stevens and three of his assistants, the producer has since gone into hiding. In an interview held with the associated press, Bacile claimed that he considered Islam as constituting ‘a cancer’. Arguably, therefore, his film was essentially a political statement meant to condemn the practice of Islam religion. Very little was known about the movie until the 14 minutes thriller was posted on YouTube having also been shown on Egyptian TV. In Cairo, Egypt, Nader Bakkar, a spokesperson of Salafi al-Nour political party, requested Muslims to engage in a peaceful demonstration against the film outside the Embassy of the U.S. Later, the brother to the leader of al-Qaida joined in to support the spokesperson’s request followed by more echoes from other political leaders of Salafi. When the demonstration was held, the aftermath was the tearing of the American flag. A black flag was raised to replace it. This flag had inscriptions of Muslim faith declarations. The demonstrators also spray-painted the entrance to the U.S. embassy coupled with breaking the embassy’s perimeter wall. Following this incident, Salafis incredibly engaged in drawing Muslims’ attention into the YouTube film. Upon popularization of the film, myriads of incidences of riots began to be registered across Arabic nations including Syria and others. In all these incidences, there were no cases of loss of life recorded. However, the most questionable reactions to the film are the ones experienced in Libya.

On Tuesday, the 11th, September 2012, news speedily spread across the world that the life of Christopher Stevens and three of his assistants were at threat following attacks of the US’ embassy in Libya by Islam mob who were angered by a film made in America in ‘abuse of their holy prophet Mohammad.’ The deaths of the four people were later confirmed with the immense belief that the attacks were conducted by a mob that was led by Salafi’s element that had been engaging in rampage against what they claimed as ‘American hatred for Muslim saints’ (Roy, 2012, Para.1). It has also emerged that the attackers were armed. Therefore, the question that emerges is whether these attacks were meant to be a peaceful demonstration like the ones conducted in Egypt or there were ill intents of acts of terrorism disguised as demonstrations against a film, which the American government neither took active roles nor was it aware of its preparation. This dilemma makes subtle sense especially by noting that America supported the overthrow of Libyan president: president Gadaffi.

Crime or Terrorism

Recognizing that America supported the overthrow of president Gadaffi, the question of whether the killing of Christopher Stevens and his three assistants was an act of terrorism or crime remains valid. In this line of view, under the provisions of international law, of which Libya abides, whether people are religious or non-religious, their ideas need to be treated with respect. This implies that crime against people in objection to their views is not justifiable on the grounds of protection of the freedom of religion and the need to shield one’s religious faith from criticism. In the U.S., humanists incredibly support criticisms of humanism including religious beliefs. While some criticisms may be vulgar among the people targeted by them, there are no legal justifications for murder or even hurting other people based on criticisms.

While the killing of the four U.S. nationals may be treated as acts of crime, the earlier support of demonstration by people linked with terrorist groups such as al-Quaida raises substantive grounds for speculation of the likelihood of the killings having elements of terrorism ingrained in them. It is clear that the American government never directed nor was it aware of the production of the film. Consequently, linking the diplomats of the U.S. as a nation with individual criticisms raises questions on the intents of the attackers of the embassy. With calls across the Arab nations for America to apologize for the film together with the demonstration justifications by the members of Salafi, it would sound plausible for Libya to take the responsibility for the killing of the U.S diplomats while the U.S takes the responsibility for the claimed disregarding of Muslim saints. However, the U.S needs to assume responsibility for ascertaining that demonstrators were genuine in the circumstances leading to the riots and that these killings were not instigated by acts of terrorism. Acts of terrorism are not tolerated under any circumstances, leave alone the need for protection of religious rights.

Pursuing the Case

Having been categorically stated that the acts of killing of the U.S. diplomats in Libya amount to acts of crime, the fact that it is worth speculating that there could be ill intentions of terrorists in facilitation of the crimes does not warrant persuasion of crimes through military interventions. The reason for holding this position is inspired by the fact that, under international and the provisions of the US laws, military intervention are only justifiable in case there exists a proof beyond any doubt that the security of a nation is threatened by some organized activities of some organized illegal groups such as in the case of al-Qaida. Consequently, the plausible approach to the crimes committed against America in Libya is prosecution.

Applicable Laws

Upon apprehension of people believed to have committed the crimes, it becomes important before the hearings commence to determine the necessary laws to be applied. There are three approaches in the trials: Libyan, American, and international laws. However, the applicability of any of these laws is dependent on the relationship that exists between the affected parties. As discussed before, it is declared by the Libyan constitution that Libya is an Islamic state. Consequently, if the Libyan law is applied, it is likely that parties on both sides would not be given a fair and neutral hearing. On the other hand, application of the U.S. laws would not be favored by the side inclined to the Islamic religious beliefs. This means that the only neutral ground is through the application of the international law. This is subtle for avoiding religious conflicts in the resolution of the cases. It is however important to note that, unless proven guilty, whether under the Libyan, international or even the U.S’ law, the accused ought to remain as suspects: they need to be treated as such in the proceedings until their involvement in killings is proved. The choice of international law is particularly significant since international law is meant for the resolution of cases involving people living in different nations (Provost, 2002, p.7). The precise law necessary for application is the criminal international law since the matter at hand involves acts of crime.

Place of Trial

Speech is dual in nature. Both sides would have certain fundamental agreements, both for and against the case, in support of their constitutional rights. Thus, it is necessary for the case to be tried under a body that appreciates constitutional religious freedoms of both sides, which would take neutral positions besides making both sides feel that such a position is taken. For this reason, the UN is a crucial body that could facilitate the full utilization of international law while making both sides feel not humiliated by either side of religious affiliations. This goes far in helping to mitigate the likely further demonstrations against perceptions of religious humiliations. The preciseness of the international law under the UN trial is that the body appreciates a speech expressed in any form of media, which represents people’s convections with other people. Under normal circumstances, it amounts to offending others through exposure to different perspectives (Provost, 2002, p.33). However, this does not warrant extension of criminal activities towards certain parties on the accounts of being offended, as this amounts to breach of the international criminal law (Jianping & Zhixiang, 2005, p.339). Should it be proven that the killers of the US nationals are guilty of the offenses, then this is understood that the crimes would be punishable for violations of human rights. This follows the sense that the reactions on the freedom of speech expressed via the film amount not only to the threat of life but also to a second account of the actual act of taking life, which is punishable under the international laws as a criminal activity.

Applicability of the U.S Constitutional Safeguards Rules

Stemming of the above arguments, the application of constitutional safeguards of the U.S. does not apply. From the contexts of the United States’ constitutional safeguards, amid abhorring religious hatred speeches, religious criticism remains legal and valid. The direction taken will thus assume endeavors to pursue the freedom of speech and religious freedom guaranteed to all citizens of the US unconditionally and explicitly by the U.S. constitution. On the other hand, when this direction is taken, perceptions of religious inclinations and attitudes of the other party would make it claim ‘neglect’ of their religious rights, protection, and respect of their religious saints such as prophet Mohammad as proclaimed in their constitution declaring Islam as the religion of the state. This means that friction would arise in case the provisions of the U.S. constitutional safeguards would be applied. Consequently, the U.S. would face exposure to both hate and acts of terror. The argument here is that, it is crucial to ensure that justice is delivered to bring the killers to book and be punished under the international law. Therefore, it is also necessary for the U.S. to adopt legal frameworks that would reduce long-term exposure to the risks of terror particularly with the emerging light that Islam extremists such as al-Qaida are taking sides in the Libyan stalemate.

Jurisdiction for executing the sentence

In the due process of delivery of justice to the four people killed in the Libyan riots, the government of Libya needs to take responsibility for the aftermaths of demonstrations. This is because it is within the obligation of the government under the provisions of the international law to protect the lives of international people besides ensuring that their universal human rights are respected and guaranteed including the rights of life. This implies that, when the accused may be found guilty, it is in the best interest of Libya to ensure that such cases are barred from occurring in the future. To make local people understand the need to adhere to the international provision of human rights, the sentence must be executed within the Libya jurisdiction.


Under the provisions of the international law, people are accorded the right of worship including participation in any religious convection. However, this right does not warrant people subscribing to particular religious faith to engage in activities that pose threats to human life. Freedom of religion encompasses upholding principles, which support communal, public, individual freedom of belief, practice and worship, teach, and even observe any religious faith or affiliation. Additionally, the freedom of religion involves giving people the freedom and right to join, follow, and even leave at will any religion. However, it has been argued in the paper that the fact people are accorded religious rights does not mean that they should engage in acts that may pose threat to human life like the killings of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his assistants on Tuesday 11, September 2012 over accusations of disrespect of the Islamic religious saints. The paper maintains that people need to seek justice for crimes against human rights through prosecution, as provided in the international law besides being tried under the UN law.

Reference List

Hellyler, A. (2012). Ending the radicalization spiral after the tragedy in Libya. Web.

Jianping, L., & Zhixiang, W. (2005). Roles of International criminal law in creating harmony between nations. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2(1), 313-345.

Provost, R. (2002). International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roy, S. (2012). What the Libyan embassy attack teaches us about true religion. Web.

Royal Institute of International Affairs. (1951). Chronology of International Events and Documents. Journal of Royal Institute of International Affairs, 7(8), 213-244.

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DemoEssays. "Libyan Embassy Attack – Whose Responsibility Is It?" December 30, 2022.