It goes like this:
On September 11, and in the days that followed, citizens in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa gathered to protest The Innocence of Muslims, a video on YouTube produced in California that was disrespectful to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Protests that began peacefully outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo and elsewhere grew more violent as extremists decided to take advantage of the unrest.If the violence wasn’t justified, the demonstrations were understandable, given the deeply offensive content of the video. During his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, for example, President Obama argued that the video “must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.” And while the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, did not grow out of street demonstrations there, as initial reports had suggested, they did come in response to the protests in Cairo, which were sparked by the offensive film.
White House press secretary Jay Carney summarized this version of events during a November 27 briefing. “There was no protest outside the Benghazi facility,” he conceded. “To this day,” he continued, “it is the assessment of this administration and of our intelligence community and certainly the assessment of your colleagues and the press who have interviewed participants on the ground in the assault on our facilities in Benghazi that they acted at least in part in response to what they saw happening in Cairo and took advantage of that situation.”
Carney elaborated (emphasis added): “They saw what was the breach of our embassy in Cairo and decided to act in Benghazi. And as you know, the breach of our embassy in Cairo was directly in response to the video and was started as a protest outside of our embassy in Cairo.”
The Obama administration’s bottom line: The conflagrations across the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere can be traced back to an offensive video. In this telling, there is an almost civic quality to the protests—the demonstrators were concerned Muslims out to defend their religion from the unjustifiable bigotry of a misguided filmmaker (who is now in prison for parole violations).
This story leaves out what is arguably the most important detail: the role of al Qaeda in the attacks. It’s a sanitized version of reality. The true story is far more complicated—and gives reasons for both optimism and concern.
On the one hand, one could argue that the attacks on September 11, 2012, reflect a degradation of al Qaeda’s capabilities, 11 years after the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The events earlier this year seem to have been planned as much to gain attention as they were to do lasting damage. That’s the optimistic interpretation.
On the other hand, al Qaeda and its supporters breached the walls of several American diplomatic facilities. They raised their own flags in place of the Stars and Stripes. And in a well-planned, military-style attack, they overran a U.S. consulate and killed an ambassador and three other Americans. It’s not 9/11/01. But neither is it the work of a group that is “on the path to defeat,” as the president claimed during his speech at the Democratic National Convention a week before the attacks.
The YouTube video, ostensibly a trailer for a longer film, was played on Egyptian television the evening of September 9. But it was a pretext for the demonstrations, not the cause of them. As one U.S. official told The Weekly Standard at the beginning of the investigation into September 11, 2012, there are indications the attacks were planned as “an information operation” by al Qaeda. The intent, in addition to striking American interests, was to demonstrate that the al Qaeda ideology is still relevant in the post-Arab Spring world.
A message from al Qaeda
It began on September 10, when al Qaeda released a video starring the group’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. The emir of al Qaeda called for revenge for the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top Libyan al Qaeda operative struck down months earlier by a U.S. drone in northern Pakistan. Abu Yahya’s blood “is calling, urging you and is inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders,” Zawahiri said. The very next day, terrorists did just that in Abu Yahya’s home country.
But Zawahiri also sought to downplay the damage done to his organization by the deaths of individual terrorists, the linchpin of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. In the ideological war, Zawahiri claimed, al Qaeda is winning.
“This liar [Obama] is trying to deceive the Americans that he will achieve victory against al Qaeda through killing this person or that person, and escapes from the truth that he was defeated in Iraq, he is being defeated in Afghanistan, he was defeated in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya,” Zawahiri argued, according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group. “He is running from the fact that al Qaeda has achieved its real mission, which is to incite the Ummah, and this is the warning for America’s defeat, Allah willing.”
Al Qaeda’s message “of jihad and martyrdom, and refusal of humiliation and submission,” Zawahiri insisted, “has spread amongst our Muslim Ummah, which received it with acceptance and responded to it.”
It is at this point in Zawahiri’s September 10 video message that a clip produced by Al Faroq Media in Egypt is shown. Al Faroq is not an official al Qaeda media outlet, but it endorses al Qaeda’s ideology. The Al Faroq clip shows a well-known al Qaeda-linked jihadist named Ahmed Ashush honoring Osama bin Laden as a martyr during a sermon in Cairo. Mohammed al Zawahiri, Ayman’s younger brother, sits in the foreground in front of an Al Qaeda in Iraq flag. Also sitting next to Ashush is another pro-al Qaeda jihadist named Sheikh Adel Shehato.
Both Mohammed al Zawahiri and Sheikh Shehato were directly involved in the events of September 11, 2012. And on September 17, Ashush would issue a fatwa calling for the makers of The Innocence of Muslims to be killed.
The protest in Cairo
When Jay Carney and other Obama administration spokesmen say that the Cairo protest was “directly in response to the video,” they ignore the obvious. The Cairo demonstration was not just anti-American or anti-blasphemy. It was an ostentatious, pro-al Qaeda affair.
The protesters chanted: “Obama, Obama! We are all Osama!” Al Qaeda in Iraq’s flag was hoisted after the U.S. embassy’s walls were breached. Dozens of similar flags, from al Qaeda-affiliated or inspired groups around the globe, were waved throughout the crowd. This was hardly a coincidence.
The Cairo protest’s chief organizer was the aforementioned Mohammed al Zawahiri, who was released from an Egyptian prison after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He admits that he helped incite the protest in Cairo. “We called for the peaceful protest joined by different Islamic factions, including the Islamic Jihad [and the] Hazem Abu Ismael movement,” Mohammed al Zawahiri said, according to CNN.
Islamic Jihad is more commonly known as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and is part of al Qaeda’s international jihadist coalition. Ayman al Zawahiri, the EIJ’s longtime head, merged the group with Osama bin Laden’s venture well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The eponymous Hazem Abu Ismael party is led by a hardline Salafist ideologue who has honored Osama bin Laden as a “martyr” and, in turn, been praised by the Zawahiris.
There has been some confusion in the press over Mohammed al Zawahiri’s politics. CNN and other news outlets have presented him as a peacemaker, for instance, because he offered to broker a deal between the jihadists and the West. But, as CNN itself has noted, Mohammed al Zawahiri’s “peace” offering was essentially the same one offered by Osama bin Laden a year before al Qaeda bombed London’s mass transit system on July 7, 2005. It is a ruse.
Mohammed al Zawahiri compiled an extensive terrorist dossier prior to his capture in the UAE in 1999. He became a high-ranking EIJ leader and did Ayman’s bidding throughout the 1990s, clandestinely traveling the world to various jihadist hotspots. During the Bosnian war (1992-1995), Ayman sent Mohammed to the Balkans, where he ostensibly did charity work for the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). In reality, Mohammed was tasked with establishing terrorist cells and coordinating the activities of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists seeking a new, post-Afghanistan battlefield to fight on. The U.S. government eventually designated the IIRO as an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Years later, a terrorist cell set up by Mohammed in Tirana, Albania, caused the U.S. government to go on high alert. On August 14, 1998, the U.S. embassy in Tirana was evacuated after officials learned that an al Qaeda cell had the facility in its crosshairs. Al Qaeda had bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania just one week earlier. As former Clinton administration officials have written, the threat in Tirana was so serious that 200 Marines were dispatched to make sure the evacuation went smoothly.
Throughout the summer of 1998, the Clinton administration worked with Albania’s secret police to roll up the Tirana terror network. These same jihadists were defendants in what came to be known as the “Returnees from Albania” case in Egypt. As the case moved forward, Mohammed al Zawahiri’s hand in his older brother’s plotting was discovered. Several of the defendants identified Mohammed as a senior terrorist. In addition to setting up the Tirana cell that threatened the U.S. embassy, Mohammed had also been active in Sudan, Yemen, Azerbaijan, his native Egypt, and elsewhere.
A January 2000 article in London’s Al Hayat summarized Mohammed’s role within the EIJ, noting that the Zawahiri brothers had “opt[ed] to work with bin Laden.” Mohammed was described as the head of the EIJ’s “special action” or “military” committee. In al Qaeda’s lexicon, “military” is a euphemism for “terrorist.” Al Hayat explained that Mohammed’s committee was “in charge” of the EIJ’s “military actions, follows up the activities of its members inside and outside the country [Egypt], directs and gives them tasks at all levels, and determines their methods and ways of movement, the targets for military operations, and the ways of implementing them.” Mohammed also served on the EIJ’s shura, or consultation council. Other press accounts confirmed Mohammed’s position within the al Qaeda-affiliated EIJ.
Mohammed al Zawahiri, in short, was a big deal inside al Qaeda prior to his arrest.
Egyptian authorities sentenced him to death, but for some unknown reason he escaped capital punishment. Since his release from prison last March, Mohammed has taken on a more conspicuous role, giving numerous interviews to Western and Egyptian journalists. While being coy about his ties to al Qaeda the organization, the younger Zawahiri has repeatedly proclaimed his adherence to al Qaeda’s ideology.
Mohammed al Zawahiri was not the only senior EIJ terrorist who helped incite protesters in Cairo. A video released in early October by Al Faroq Media branded the Cairo protest as an al Qaeda event. Spliced between images of Osama bin Laden were video clips of Mohammed al Zawahiri and two other senior EIJ members, Sheikh Adel Shehato and Tawfiq al Afani, standing outside of the U.S. embassy. Both Shehato and Afani have openly praised al Qaeda.
The Al Faroq video also showed a terrorist named Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, a close ally of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, inciting protesters. Taha Musa headed the al Qaeda-allied terrorist organization Gamaa Islamiyya in the 1990s.
Taha Musa was included as a signatory on al Qaeda’s February 1998 fatwa justifying terrorist attacks against American civilians. He would later claim that he did not explicitly endorse the fatwa, but his alliance with al Qaeda is beyond dispute. In October 2000, he appeared in a video broadcast on Al Jazeera sitting between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. The trio called for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to be freed from a U.S. prison. Rahman remains behind bars for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks.
Taha Musa has been connected to numerous terrorist plots, including a 1995 plan to assassinate Mubarak (Osama bin Laden assisted with the plot) and the 1997 massacre in Luxor, Egypt. More than 60 civilians were slaughtered in the Luxor attack.
In 2001, according to the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report, Taha Musa “published a book in which he attempted to justify terrorist attacks that result in mass civilian casualties.” The State Department warned then that Taha Musa’s followers “may be interested in carrying out attacks against U.S. interests.”
In his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former director of central intelligence George Tenet explains that Taha Musa was at the center of “intelligence assessments” that “painted a picture of a plot to kidnap Americans in India, Turkey, and Indonesia” in 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA located Taha Musa in Syria and had him deported to Egypt, where he was imprisoned for a decade.
These jihadists—Mohammed al Zawahiri, Sheikh Adel Shehato, Sheikh Tawfiq al Afani, and Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa—helped instigate the September 11, 2012, protest in Cairo. Each of them has decades-long ties to al Qaeda. Others, including soccer fanatics, joined the Cairo protest. But the fact remains that al Qaeda-allied jihadists incited a mob.
The terrorist attack in Benghazi
On October 24, Egyptian authorities raided an apartment building in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo. A firefight ensued when the police entered the building, and one suspected terrorist was killed after a bomb he had built detonated. Egyptian officials have publicly alleged that the cell has ties to the attack in Benghazi and to al Qaeda.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials tell The Weekly Standard that Washington leaned heavily on the Egyptians to disrupt the Nasr City cell. While the Obama administration is reluctant to finger al Qaeda-affiliated organizations for the Benghazi attack, it has been privately pressuring Egypt to disrupt a terror network littered with al Qaeda connections.
Days after the Nasr City bust, the Egyptians arrested Sheikh Adel Shehato—the EIJ leader who helped incite the Cairo protest alongside Mohammed al Zawahiri. The Egyptians accused Shehato of founding and financing the Nasr City cell. They say he was arrested en route to Libya with a large sum of cash.
In early December, the Egyptians made another significant bust in the Nasr City case. They arrested Muhammad Jamal al Kashef. Both theWall Street Journal and the New York Times have reported that terrorists trained in a Libyan camp established by Kashef took part in the attack in Benghazi.
Kashef, a military commander in the EIJ since the 1990s, had been imprisoned along with Mohammed al Zawahiri and associates. Kashef never wavered in his commitment to al Qaeda-style jihad.
In 2007, al Qaeda came under an ideological attack from one of its own. Ayman al Zawahiri’s onetime ally Sayyid Imam al Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl) published a stinging rebuke of al Qaeda’s violence, citing the group’s indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. Zawahiri is typically long-winded in his pseudo-sermons, but Sharif’s critique was so potent that the al Qaeda leader responded in a series of missives that were verbose even by his standards. Such was the threat Sharif posed to al Qaeda’s worldview.
Ayman al Zawahiri’s allies inside Egypt’s prisons at the time, including Jamal, responded to Sharif as well. “We support all jihad movements in the world and see in them the hope of the nation and its frontlines toward its bright future,” Jamal’s statement, signed by seven other jihadists, read. “We say to our Muslim nation that no matter how long the night may last, dawn will emerge.” Jamal’s -cosignatories included Mohammed al Zawahiri, Sheikh Tawfiq al Afani, and Ahmed Ashush.
Jamal quickly began to reestablish himself in the terrorist underworld following his release from prison. The Wall Street Journal reports that Kashef “petitioned al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to establish a new Qaeda affiliate he called Al Qaeda in Egypt” and also received financing from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Mohammed al Zawahiri reportedly helped Kashef get in touch with his older brother.
Another of Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian allies, Murjan Salim, has reportedly helped fill Jamal’s Libyan camps with new recruits. While Mohammed al Zawahiri was the head of the EIJ’s military committee in the 1990s, Salim managed the organization’s theological matters.
Some Arabic publications have described Kashef as a senior al Qaeda leader. Citing “security sources,” Al Hayat reported the Egyptian “investigations revealed that [Kashef] had close links to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who assigned him to lead the organization in Egypt and Libya.” Kashef, Al Hayat continued, “has masterminded several operations . . . particularly in Libya and Yemen, upon Zawahiri’s instructions,” and “he got the green light to carry out further jihadist operations in Egypt and Libya.”
In the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi, much of the media’s coverage focused on a militia named Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi. A militia with the same name operates in the eastern Libyan city of Derna. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that members of the militia took part in the Benghazi assault, but has sought to distinguish the group from al Qaeda.
According to ABC News, however, Kashef has “admitted to traveling to Libya and assisting Ansar al Sharia, which U.S. officials suspect organized the attack on the consulate that killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.”
Kashef is not the Ansar al Sharia militia’s only tie to al Qaeda. Multiple reports confirm that Ansar al Sharia members involved in the Benghazi attack were in contact with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda affiliate that has sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. And CNN has reported that some of the Benghazi terrorists are suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, another al Qaeda affiliate loyal to the senior Zawahiri.
In addition, a report published by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office in August, before the attack in Benghazi, described Ansar al Sharia in Libya as part of al Qaeda’s clandestine network. The report’s authors said that Ansar al Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.”
The only connection the Obama administration has publicly drawn between the events in Cairo and Benghazi on September 11, 2012, is a supposedly spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film. But the facts tell a different story, one that points directly at al Qaeda.
The assault on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa
On September 13, the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, was overrun. According to the New York Times, the embassy was stormed after Sheikh Abdul Majeed al Zindani, a well-known al Qaeda supporter, called for a protest against The Innocence of Muslims.
In 2004, the Treasury Department added Zindani to its list of designated terrorist supporters, making it illegal for any American to do business with him. Treasury noted that Zindani was an Osama bin Laden “loyalist” and had “a long history of working with bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders.” Zindani “has been able to influence and support many terrorist causes, including actively recruiting for al Qaeda training camps” and “played a key role in the purchase of weapons on behalf of al Qaeda and other terrorists.” Like his al Qaeda-allied brethren in Cairo, Zindani used the anti-Islam film as a pretext to unleash an assault on the U.S. embassy.
The assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis
On September 14, the U.S. embassy in Tunis came under siege. American personnel had already been evacuated, but the attackers did extensive damage to the embassy and an American school. Four people were killed. The group responsible is Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which also has numerous ties to al Qaeda.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is headed by an infamous jihadist named Seifallah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyad al Tunisi. In 2000, Hassine cofounded a terrorist organization in Afghanistan called the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG). He did so “in coordination with” al Qaeda, according to the United Nations. Hassine reportedly met with both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
Hassine’s TCG assisted al Qaeda in the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander who led the opposition to the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Massoud was killed on September 9, 2001. The assassination was a harbinger, removing a key opponent from the Afghan battlefield on the eve of the 9/11 attacks and hindering the U.S. organization of an Afghan opposition to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the immediate aftermath. When the Taliban’s Afghanistan fell to the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, according to leaked intelligence files prepared at Guantánamo, Hassine organized a fighting unit to defend bin Laden during the Battle of Tora Bora. To this day, Hassine does not hide his admiration for al Qaeda.
Earlier this year, a video of Hassine warning against Western intervention in Tunisia at an Ansar al Sharia rally was posted online. Hassine was standing in front of an Al Qaeda in Iraq flag just like the one raised over the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Flanking him were two terrorists notorious in Italy.
One of them, Sami Ben Khemais Essid, was formerly the head of al Qaeda in Italy. According to the State Department, Essid plotted to attack the U.S. embassy in Rome in early 2001 before he was arrested and convicted of terrorism charges by an Italian court. The other, Mehdi Kammoun, worked for Essid’s Italian network. According to the United Nations, Kammoun “sent militants to training camps organized by al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Essid and Kammoun were deported from Italy to Tunisia, where they were imprisoned for years.
Like their Egyptian counterparts, Hassine, Essid, and Kammoun were freed from prison in the wake of the Arab Spring. Tunisian authorities arrested more than 140 people after the ransacking of the U.S. embassy in Tunis, including many Ansar al Sharia members. Hassine, now the most wanted man in Tunisia, wasn’t among them. After delivering a defiant sermon at a Tunis mosque, Hassine was surrounded by authorities but muscled his way out with his followers. Essid and Kammoun remain free as well.
Another message from al Qaeda
In early November, Ayman al Zawahiri released a message addressed to Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia. Al Shabaab had suffered setbacks in recent months, but Zawahiri urged the group to keep fighting. According to him, the “Crusaders” had been weakened. While he did not explicitly take credit for the embassy protest in Cairo or the attack in Benghazi, Zawahiri did cite them as “defeats” for the Americans.
“They were defeated in Iraq and they are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and their ambassador in Benghazi was killed and the flags of their embassies were lowered in Cairo and Sanaa, and in their places were raised the flags of tawhid [monotheism] and jihad,” Zawahiri said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. “After their consecutive defeats, they are working from behind agents and traitors,” the al Qaeda chieftain continued. “Their awe is lost and their might is gone, and they don’t dare to carry out a new campaign like their past ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Al Qaeda’s emir has cited America’s supposed defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan before. But this message was different. Zawahiri deliberately linked the September assaults on U.S. diplomatic facilities to the jihadists’ broader war on America and its allies. It is a connection the Obama administration refuses to make, even as the investigation into the Benghazi attack has broadened to these very same countries. This past week, according to the Associated Press, U.S. counterterrorism officials explained to the House Intelligence Committee that “uncooperative or less-than-capable local law enforcement in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia is slowing the search for suspects in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya on Sept. 11.”
Al Qaeda did not, or perhaps could not, hijack American planes on the 11th anniversary of its infamous attacks. But terrorists with well-known ties to al Qaeda orchestrated assaults on U.S. diplomatic facilities in several countries, killing an ambassador and three other Americans in the process.
One cannot help but think that they proved Ayman al Zawahiri’s point: Despite the killing of its senior leaders in Pakistan, al Qaeda lives.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.