Forty-one recently declassified State Department documents obtained by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, have reignited the controversy over the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Ben-ghazi, Libya. One document in particular, an email authored by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and speechwriter for the president, has garnered the most attention.
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday, September 14, 2012, Rhodes emailed other administration officials as they prepared for U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s upcoming appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows. Rhodes’s email set forth four goals, the second of which was “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” The video in question was an Internet trailer for Innocence of Muslims. The email from Rhodes also repeated an erroneous talking point: “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Ben-ghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex.”
As officials soon learned, however, there never were any “demonstrations” in Ben-ghazi—only a deadly attack launched by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. For this reason, some have viewed the protests elsewhere and the attack in Benghazi as being distinct. That is a mistake.
As the newly established House select committee investigating Ben-ghazi moves forward with its work, it should look carefully at the events that transpired in Cairo, Tunis, Yemen, and elsewhere. In each case, known al Qaeda actors or their allies helped spark the protests. And in each instance they used the anti-Islam video as a pretext for inciting anti-American, pro-al Qaeda rage.
The first protest occurred outside of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012. The Obama administration and much of the media were quick to portray the rally as a reaction to clips of Innocence of Muslims, which had been posted online a few months earlier. But this storyline ignored key facts.
The video received little attention until an Islamist ideologue named Sheikh Khaled Abdullah broadcast clips of it, dubbed in Arabic, on the al-Nas satellite television channel in Egypt. As Time first reported, Abdullah’s broadcast was a “dog whistle to the Salafists,” who practice a puritanical form of Islam and seek to undo Western influence in Muslim lands. In other words, Abdullah sought to exploit the video for his own hardline Salafist purposes. Al Qaeda is a so-called Salafi-jihadist organization, meaning that its members share the same goals as other Salafists, but also promote violence to achieve their desired ends.
In short order, al Qaeda ideologues called for a mass protest in Egypt. Chief among them was Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The younger Zawahiri is a terrorist operative and does not hide his allegiance to al Qaeda’s ideology. After the Cairo embassy’s walls were breached, Mohammed al Zawahiri bragged to the press about his role in instigating the demonstration. Zawahiri’s allies joined in, too, and video of the Cairo protest shows several well-known al Qaeda jihadists inciting the crowd.
There is a simple fact about the Cairo demonstration that the Obama administration has been eager to ignore. The rally wasn’t just anti-Innocence of Muslims; it was pro-al Qaeda. Dozens of al Qaeda flags were flown by the crowd. One of the black banners was raised to replace the Stars and Stripes above the embassy. And the protesters chanted, “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama!” The same chant would be heard at protests at other U.S. embassies in the days to come.
Not every protester who showed up at the Cairo rally was an al Qaeda supporter. But enough of them were. And the protest showed that men such as Mohammed al Zawahiri could use a previously obscure video to whip up anti-American outrage.
Eerily, the protests validated a key argument made by Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, in a video released on September 10. The post-bin Laden al Qaeda master said that while the terrorist group has lost key leaders in its war with America, its ideology is spreading. That al Qaeda video cuts to a clip of Mohammed al Zawahiri proselytizing in Cairo just as the elder Zawahiri makes this argument. An al Qaeda flag flying over the U.S. embassy in Cairo the following day proved the point.
Ayman al Zawahiri also used his September 10 video to call on Libyans to avenge the death of Abu Yahya al Libi, a top al Qaeda operative killed months earlier by a U.S. drone. Within hours of the Cairo rally, a coalition of al Qaeda-linked jihadists stormed the U.S. compound in Ben-ghazi, killing four Americans.
A bipartisan report published by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 15 identifies the attackers as belonging to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN), and Ansar al Sharia. AQIM and AQAP are formal branches of al Qaeda, having sworn an oath of loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri. Muhammad Jamal is a longtime subordinate of Zawahiri and was in contact with him in 2011 and 2012. Jamal’s ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership and other parts of al Qaeda’s international network have been formally recognized in terrorist designations by both the State Department and the United Nations. Ansar al Sharia in Derna, Libya, is led by an ex-Guantánamo detainee and al Qaeda operative, Sufian Ben Qumu. Some of Ben Qumu’s men took part in the Ben-ghazi attack.
On September 13, a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, was instigated by Shaykh Abd al-Majid al Zindani, who was designated an al Qaeda supporter by the Treasury Department in 2004. At
the time, Zindani was described as an Osama bin Laden “loyalist” who “has a long history of working with” the al Qaeda founder, “notably serving as one of [bin Laden’s] spiritual leaders.” Zindani has helped al Qaeda in various ways, from recruiting new jihadists for its training camps to helping the terrorist organization purchase weapons. In December 2013, the Treasury Department reported that Zindani “has issued religious guidance in support of AQAP operations.”
On September 14, 2012, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia led a mob that ransacked the U.S. embassy and a nearby American school in Tunis, causing millions of dollars in damage. The organization’s head is a notorious jihadist named Seifallah Ben Hassine (aka Abu Iyad al Tunisi), who founded a terrorist organization in pre-9/11 Afghanistan in cooperation with al Qaeda’s senior leaders.
According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, Ben Hassine has been “implicated as the mastermind behind the September 14 attack on the US Embassy,” which involved “a mob of 2,000-3,000” people, “including individuals affiliated with the militant organization Ansar al Sharia.” And when the State Department added Ansar al Sharia Tunisia to the list of designated terrorist entities in January it noted that Ben Hassine’s terrorist group “is ideologically aligned with al Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM.” Indeed, Ansar
al Sharia Tunisia proudly announces that it has been loyal to al Qaeda since its founding.
The protests in Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa were the most serious in terms of damage to American interests. In each case, Americans had to be protected from possible acts of violence. But al Qaeda-affiliated ideologues helped spark protests elsewhere, too.
On September 14, 2012, hundreds of protesters turned out for what was largely a peaceful protest in Amman, Jordan. They were led by Abu Sayyaf, who has played a significant role in al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq and Syria. And in Lahore, Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed led hundreds more in a protest against the video. Saeed is the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist organization that is closely allied with al Qaeda. Saeed was in close contact with Osama bin Laden right up until the al Qaeda master’s last days in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Saeed is considered so dangerous that the State Department has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Al Qaeda-linked organizations continued to use the video as a pretext for violence in the days following the Benghazi attack. On September 21, 2012, a group named Ansar Jerusalem launched a cross-border raid into Israel, killing an Israeli soldier. Ansar Jerusalem dubbed the attack a “raid of punishment,” saying it was necessary “to discipline those insulting the beloved Prophet,” according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. Although there was no Jewish involvement in the production of Innocence of Muslims, Ansar Jerusalem blamed Jews anyway. The organization sought to tie its attack on Israel to the video, when in reality the video had nothing to do with Ansar Jerusalem’s terrorism. Ansar Jerusalem first attacked Israel well before anyone was talking about Innocence of Muslims.
Ansar Jerusalem’s true motivations, like those of the other groups responsible for assaulting U.S. diplomatic facilities in September 2012, are rooted in al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology. The group has peppered its videos with clips of Ayman al Zawahiri. The head of al Qaeda has, in turn, repeatedly praised Ansar Jerusalem’s attacks on Israel and inside Egypt. In a video released in January 2013, Ansar Jerusalem again tried to link its September 2012 terrorist attack in Israel to the video. This time, Ansar Jerusalem paid homage to Osama bin Laden. “If the freedom of your expression has no limit, then your chests should bear the freedom of our actions,” bin Laden says in the video. Bin Laden said this in connection with the protests that arose following the publication of controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005.
The State Department added Ansar Jerusalem to the U.S. government’s list of designated terrorist groups in April. Foggy Bottom noted that the group “shares some aspects of [al Qaeda’s] ideology, but is not a formal AQ affiliate and generally maintains a local focus.” Left unsaid was what aspects of al Qaeda’s ideology the group doesn’t share. And its “local” attacks are perfectly consistent with al Qaeda’s global jihad. Ayman al Zawahiri has said as much.
Contrary to the talking points of Ben Rhodes and the Obama administration, the terrorist attack in Ben-ghazi and the assaults on American embassies elsewhere in the fall of 2012 were a monumental “failure
of policy.” Rhodes and other administration officials, including President Obama, claimed during a presidential election year to have al Qaeda “on the run.” Instead, groups that were, at a minimum, inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology were growing and attacking American interests.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.