The tragic death this week of four U.S. officials, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, is a major turning point for Libya's transition to lasting stability.
As details emerge, it appears increasingly probable that al Qaeda-linked groups were behind the violence, likely acting in reprisal for the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, Al Qaeda's second in command, who was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan earlier this year. Just prior to the Benghazi assault, on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released an Internet video in which, according to CNN, he said that al-Libi's "blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders."
Even if the deaths were not linked to al Qaeda or its dangerous North African affiliates, the event is still a major threat to Libya's chances of successful transition to stability, and could be a watershed of the worst kind. The nightmare scenario that Libya could go the way of Iraq in 2004 is still not likely, but no longer seems implausible.
The Libyan government's public statements indicate they fully recognize the gravity of these attacks. The immediate response, if any, must be adroitly measured and await a clear picture of the facts.
In a way, this tragedy is an opportunity for Libya's new government. More than any other event since the fall of Tripoli, the attacks should force the country's leaders to take a much more active approach to ensuring safety and security and pushing ahead with other state-building measures. If these attacks do not galvanize momentum for progress, they could undermine it entirely. Instability in Libya could, in turn, undermine progress elsewhere in a region where transitions are still fragile after the Arab uprisings.
For their part, the United States, its allies, and partners that helped free Libya from Qaddafi's rule have a responsibility to do their utmost -- providing intelligence, technical advice, and, where necessary, military support -- to ensure the situation does not spiral out of control, squandering the investment that was made in toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi last year.
One question many are asking the wake of Tuesday's events: Were the United States and its allies naïve about the dangers in post-intervention Libya? The attacks come on the heels of a gradual deterioration of the country's security in recent months.
Last year's uprising began in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, where Tuesday's attacks occurred. Qaddafi claimed the revolt was the work of terrorists, long native to Eastern Libya, and warned that if it were not crushed, the country could become the Somalia of the Mediterranean -- a string of radical "Islamic emirates" just across the water from southern Europe.