The Magazine

Confusion or Coverup?

What we knew about the Benghazi attack and when we knew it.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On September 11, 2012, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was assaulted by dozens of terrorists. U.S. ambassador John Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The attack followed an al Qaeda-inspired protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo that same day. And in the days that followed, other U.S. embassies were stormed. 

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Throughout those challenging days and the weeks that followed, the Obama administration struggled to explain to Americans what had occurred. It took weeks for the administration to disavow the phony storyline it adopted early on. Administration officials maintained that the terrorist attack in Benghazi was the result of a “spontaneous” protest that spun out of control. The protesters supposedly objected to an anti-Islam film titled The Innocence of Muslims.

But there never was any protest in Benghazi. The consulate was simply attacked by terrorists, almost certainly al Qaeda-affiliated groups, on the eleventh anniversary of the most devastating al Qaeda attack in history.

The Obama administration, notably the president himself, was slow to publicly acknowledge al Qaeda’s hand in these events. It is not clear even at this writing if President Obama has yet mentioned “al Qaeda” or affiliated groups in this context. The president has found time to repeat one of his favorite campaign mantras: “Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead.” But when it comes to the events in Benghazi, the president has offered an inconsistent and misleading narrative. 

A timeline of events is set forth below. The events highlighted show that al Qaeda’s growing presence inside Libya was recognized by the U.S. government prior to the events of September 11, 2012. The day before the attack in Benghazi, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri called on jihadists to avenge the drone killing in June of a top al Qaeda operative who hailed from Libya. Other al Qaeda-linked individuals were involved in the assaults on U.S. embassies elsewhere. While it is understandable that the U.S. government would seek to distance itself from a piece of anti-Muslim propaganda, the film repeatedly cited played only an ancillary role in these events.

August – An unclassified report published by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department highlights the growing threat of Al Qaeda in Libya. The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) says that al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan has dispatched operatives to Libya. Al Qaeda is on the verge of a fully “operational network,” according to the report, and al Qaeda-affiliated militias have acquired extensive weaponry and established training camps. The report notes that al Qaeda operatives inside Libya are also working with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

September 9, Egypt – Clips of The Innocence of Muslims are shown on Egyptian television.

September 10 – Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri releases through jihadist websites a video eulogy for slain al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi and says that his organization and its ideology are alive. Zawahiri says that Libi’s “blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders.” Ayman al Zawahiri uses the video to boast that al Qaeda has not been defeated, but its “message has spread amongst our Muslim Ummah, which received it with acceptance and responded to it.” A clip of Mohammed al Zawahiri, Ayman’s brother (who told CNN earlier this year that al Qaeda’s strength is “not in its leaders but in its ideology”) is included in the video.

September 11, Cairo, Egypt (early morning) – The U.S. embassy issues a statement indirectly denouncing The Innocence of Muslims. According to the Washington Post, the embassy condemns efforts made by “misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” Parts of the statement are also released via Twitter. 

September 11, Cairo (morning) – A large crowd carrying numerous al Qaeda flags protests outside the U.S. embassy. Protesters scale the embassy’s wall, raise the flag commonly used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, and burn the Stars and Stripes. The protesters chant in Arabic: “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!” A similar refrain is spray-painted on walls near the embassy. Mohammed al Zawahiri is interviewed by a jihadist propaganda outlet in front of the embassy. He admits to CNN he helped stage the protest. 

September 11, Benghazi, Libya (about 2:30 p.m. EDT) – Ambassador Stevens walks his guests out of the compound and onto the street. There is no sign of a protest. 

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