What actually happened in Egypt and Libya on September 11, 2012? The story from the U.S. government has changed many times in an effort to craft a narrative that causes as little damage as possible to the Obama administration. Now the administration seems to have settled on something approaching a final version.
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.