Americans could be forgiven this week for having an awful feeling of déjà vu. On the anniversary of 9/11, Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, tore down the American flag, and replaced it with a black one that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to al Qaeda's trademark pennant. "Obama, Obama there are still a billion Osamas," chanted the mix of ultraconservative Salafi Muslims and soccer hooligans, known as "ultras," who claimed to be protesting a U.S.-made film that insults the Prophet Mohammed.
A little less than 700 miles to the west, Libyan militants who claimed to be equally incensed by the film -- allegedly produced by an obscure Israeli-American filmmaker who is now in hiding -- overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and set it ablaze. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in a rocket attack on their vehicle as they attempted to flee the compound, according the Washington Post's version of the story. It was the first killing of a U.S. ambassador since 1979, when Adolf Dubs was kidnapped and shot by radical militiamen in a Kabul hotel.
Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of Islamists across much of the Middle East, Tuesday's events can't help but call to mind the outpouring of anti-American sentiment of that earlier era. By late 1979, a toxic mix of Iranian anti-Americanism, Saudi petrodollars, and conspiracy theorizing touched off a wave of attacks on U.S. embassies across the Muslim world. The first -- and most chronicled -- attack occurred on Nov. 4, when radical Iranian students, upset by President Jimmy Carter's decision to let the deposed shah seek medical treatment in the United States, overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 63 Americans hostage. (Three more hostages were taken at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, but 14 were eventually released, bringing the total number to 52.) During the subsequent 444-day standoff, resentment toward American "imperialism" continued to fester and U.S. embassies in the Muslim world began to look increasingly like sitting ducks.
The embassy seizure in Iran was actually just one of several such attacks across the Muslim world that year. When Saudi Arabian militants led by Juhayman al-Utaybi, seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Nov. 20, many across the region instinctively blamed the United States and Israel -- the two most popular targets of Iranian vituperation and the source of perceived humiliation for many. That morning, Saudi Arabian officials declined to identify the perpetrators and Radio Tehran happily supplied its own narrative: "It is not far-fetched to assume that this act has been perpetrated by the criminal American imperialism so that it can infiltrate the solid ranks of Muslims by such intrigues."
In Pakistan, where General Zia ul Huq was actively courting young firebrand Islamists to shore up his political base, the students at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad reached the same conclusion. Clamoring by the busload to the U.S. Embassy, radical student members of Jamaa-e-Islami, some of whom were armed, quickly breached the compound, killing one Marine and taking another American hostage. The students proceeded to set fire to the embassy, forcing the staff to take refuge in the code room vault while the compound burned around them. Finally, after the Americans had spent more than five hours in the blistering heat of the vault, Pakistani troops arrived from their headquarters in Rawalpindi, not half an hour's drive from the embassy, and the crowds melted away.
The attack was a close call for the United States. As Steve Coll notes in Ghost Wars, "Had events taken a slight turn for the worse, the riot would have produced one of the most catastrophic losses of life in U.S. diplomatic history." But the wave of anti-Americanism had not yet crested and it would be less than two weeks before radicals lashed out against the United States again -- this time in Libya.