A crowd of Salafi Islamists swarmed over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today, tore down the American flag and replaced it with black banners proclaiming the Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.”

This hostile action, coming on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is a deliberate affront to the United States, an effort to poison bilateral Egyptian-American relations and a harbinger of darker things to come in Egypt as rival Islamist groups compete to heap abuse on the United States and put Egypt on an even more radical Islamist trajectory. The crowd demanded that the embassy be closed and chanted: “Obama, Obama, there are still a billion Osamas” – a reference to the al-Qaeda leader killed in May 2011.

The crowd, which reportedly contained many supporters of the ultra-radical Al Nour and Al Asala parties, ostensibly was protesting against anti-Islamic attitudes in the United States and an alleged film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. But the attack undoubtedly was orchestrated to drive a deep wedge between Egypt and the United States and to benefit Salafist political parties by outflanking the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in the domestic competition to exploit the anti-American soapbox.

A similar competition was the principal motivation for the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which Islamists linked to Ayatollah Khomeini exploited to discredit and ultimately oust Iran’s provisional government and marginalize rival factions of moderate Islamists, secularists, nationalists, leftists and liberals.

Libyan Islamists also got in on the act and today attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, setting it on fire. Their pretext also was the film that allegedly insulted Mohammad.

The Cairo embassy attack not only is a direct slap at America, but ultimately a major political challenge for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party now has assumed governing responsibility and must take action to fulfill its responsibilities to protect foreign diplomats. Significantly, the protesters also chanted: “Morsi, Morsi why are you silent? Isn’t this your prophet?”

This suggestion that Egypt’s President Morsi, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has not adequately defended Islam is consistent with Salafist criticism of the more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood. It presages an intensifying power struggle in Egypt that is likely to take on an increasingly anti-American tone. Morsi himself has denied that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and has embraced conspiracy theories about U.S. policy.

Yet the Obama Administration, which is readying an aid package for Egypt, appears to be deaf to the growing Islamist chants in Cairo. Even diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, who should know better, appear to be clueless about the Islamist challenge. Today the embassy released the following perplexing statement:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others

If this apologetic message was sent after the attack, then it is a glaring error that suggests the senders have succumbed to Stockholm syndrome. (Cairo syndrome, anyone?) If it was sent before the attack, then it suggests a naïve understanding of the threat posed by Islamists, who are motivated by an ideological drive to seize power, not by “hurt religious feelings.”