KABUL, Afghanistan – Islamic militants sought Tuesday to capitalize on anger over an anti-Islam video that was produced in the United States, saying a suicide bombing that killed 12 people in Afghanistan was revenge for the film and calling for attacks on U.S. diplomats and facilities in North Africa.
The attempt by extremists across the region to harness Muslim fury over a film that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad posed new concern for the United States, whose embassies and consulates have been targeted, and in some cases breached, during riots and protests over the past week.
At the same time, Western leaders welcomed statements by Middle East governments that condemned the violence against diplomatic facilities on their soil, even as they expressed anger over the video. Some of those governments replaced autocratic regimes in popular uprisings that swept the region, allowing for greater leniency toward protest.
At least 28 people have died in violence linked to the film in seven countries, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans killed in a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The toll also includes 12 protesters killed in riots over the film last week.
Some officials in Libya have said the attack on the consulate was planned in advance by militants. However, the White House said Tuesday the assault appeared to have been sparked by anger over the film, although the investigation continues.
The crisis has become a major foreign policy challenge for Washington in the final weeks of a presidential election campaign that has largely focused on economic challenges. The uproar over the video, “Innocence of Muslims,” which was made by an Egyptian-born American citizen and posted on YouTube, reflects seemingly intractable tension between Western principles of free speech and Islamic beliefs that brook no insult directed at the prophet.
The crisis offered fresh impetus for Islamic militants who have long plotted and carried out attacks on Western targets.
Tuesday’s attack in Kabul, the Afghan capital, was carried out by a suicide bomber.
The bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a mini-bus carrying foreign aviation workers to the airport. At least 12 people died, including eight South Africans, three Afghans and a citizen of Kyrgyzstan.
A spokesman for the Afghan militant group, Hizb-i-Islami, claimed responsibility for the dawn attack and said it was carried out by a 22-year-old woman named Fatima. Suicide bombings carried out by women are extremely rare in Afghanistan, where few if any Afghan women drive cars.
“The anti-Islam film hurt our religious sentiments and we cannot tolerate it,” spokesman Haroon Zarghoon told The Associated Press. “There had been several young men who wanted to take revenge, but Fatima also volunteered and we wanted to give a chance to a girl ... to tell the world we cannot ignore any anti-Islam attack.”
Also, al-Qaida’s branch in North Africa called for attacks on U.S. diplomats and an escalation of protests against the anti-Islam film. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb praised the killing of Stevens and urged Muslims to pull down and burn American flags at embassies, and kill or expel American diplomats to “purge our land of their filth in revenge for the honor of the Prophet.”
In a statement, the group condemned the United States for “lying to Muslims for more than 10 years, saying its war was against terrorism and not Islam,” and threatened attacks in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania.
Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula recently issued a similar call for attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities. It is al-Qaida’s most active branch in the Middle East.
In Tunisia, Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem pledged to bring to justice those behind protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunis that saw cars burned and classrooms at a nearby American school trashed and looted.
“Violence is not tolerated, no matter where it comes from, and can in no way be justified,” he said. “We will strictly enforce the law against those implicated in the ongoing investigation.”
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee that the film was contemptible but that it was no excuse for violence.
“I therefore welcome the clear condemnation (of the violence) from leaders, including what are generally termed Islamist leaders, across the region,” he said. He characterized the crisis as a difficult step in a democratic evolution that will last generations.
In Pakistan, hundreds of angry protesters broke through a barricade outside the U.S. Consulate in the northwest city of Peshawar, sparking clashes with police that left several wounded on both sides, said police officer Arif Khan.
In Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, a strike shut down businesses and public transportation as marchers burned U.S. flags and an effigy of President Barack Obama. Police fired tear gas and used batons to disperse protesters, who hurled rocks at the troops, according to police.
In Indonesia, about 200 people from various Islamic groups torched an American flag outside the U.S. Consulate in the city of Medan. Some unfurled banners saying, “Go to hell America,” while others trampled on dozens of paper flags.
Also, 100 Muslim students in Makassar, in central Indonesia, called for the death penalty against the filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Some 400 people protested peacefully outside the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital.
The government in Bangladesh blocked YouTube to prevent people from seeing the video. YouTube was also inaccessible in Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah ordered the blocking of all websites with access to the film. Google has blocked access to the video in Libya, Egypt, Indonesia and India because it says the video broke laws in those countries.