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.