On September 11, seemingly spontaneous protests erupted in Libya and Egypt over the online trailer for an anti-Islam video that almost no one in the West had heard of. The protests quickly became violent, ending in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his fellow Americans in Benghazi. Demonstrations against The Innocence of Muslims then spread throughout the world, even as the Obama administration repeatedly denounced the film. The administration went so far as to ask YouTube if it could find a reason to take the file down (the Google-owned website left it online, but blocked Egyptians and Libyans from seeing it). Thus did the administration focus attention on what it portrays as the real problem: a rogue video. As White House spokesman Jay Carney explained during a press briefing, “This is not a case of protests directed at the United States. . . . This is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”
That is the tidy narrative the administration and the media have settled on. The protesters were enraged by blasphemy; the attacks had nothing to do with America’s broader conflict against Islamist extremists. Reality is otherwise.
The video may have helped organizers raise mobs, but Islamist extremists, including al Qaeda, skillfully exploited the mobs for their own purposes, especially in Libya. Ambassador Stevens was not killed by rioters; he was killed in a well-planned terrorist assault.
The precise details of the attack in Libya remain murky, but anonymous Obama administration officials have offered a time line to reporters.
Around 10 p.m. local time, the assault on the American compound began. Within 15 minutes the attackers were inside the compound, shooting at the main consulate building, which was set on fire during a heavy barrage. At 10:45 p.m, according to a senior administration official, “U.S. security personnel assigned to the mission annex tried to regain the main building, but that group also took heavy fire and had to return to the mission annex.” More than half an hour after that, at 11:20 p.m., security personnel regained control of the main consulate building and moved the survivors to a nearby annex.
The terrorists then shifted their focus to the annex, firing upon it around midnight. Some reports suggest that they had inside information pointing to the Americans’ new location. The attack on the annex lasted approximately two hours. It was not until 2:30 a.m., four and a half hours after the consulate was first fired upon, that security forces were able to restore order.
“This was a very well-sophisticated [sic], coordinated event,” Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, explained during an interview with CNN. The attack was “not something you throw together in a day and say we’re going run out to do this,” Rogers continued. “I got to believe this was timed to happen on this date.”
Responsibility for the attack will take time to apportion. The U.S. investigation has been delayed as the security situation makes the FBI’s work impossible, but it is widely suspected that an al Qaeda-linked group was the culprit.
One such group is Ansar al-Sharia, which issued a quasi-denial, claiming that Muslims are unified in their opposition to the American presence in Libya. Ansar al-Sharia is a relatively new brand al Qaeda is using to redeem itself in the eyes of Muslims, who have been the primary victims of al Qaeda’s terror. In Yemen, for instance, the head of al Qaeda’s affiliate also leads an Ansar al-Sharia chapter. New Ansar al-Sharia chapters have been opened across the Middle East and Africa in the past year.
According to CNN, another suspect group is called the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades. This group claimed responsibility for an attack on the International Red Cross office in Benghazi in May and an explosion outside the U.S. consulate in June. Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh,” is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his leading role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot to blow up New York City landmarks. Al Qaeda regularly agitates for his freedom. The Blind Sheikh is so popular that during his inauguration speech in June Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi promised to work for the radical cleric’s freedom.
Libya is teeming with al Qaeda types. In an interview with The Weekly Standard, one senior U.S. intelligence official who tracks the jihadist scene there described it as “a coalition of different groups, under a wide array of leaders, all working to advance al Qaeda’s global objectives.” Ansar al-Sharia is the umbrella organization and has various “brigades” beneath it, according to this official. It is entirely plausible that the attack on the U.S. consulate was al Qaeda’s doing.
In neighboring Egypt, the assault on the U.S. embassy was not deadly as in Libya, but it was sinister nonetheless. Shortly after an al Qaeda-style flag was hoisted in place of the Stars and Stripes, some noticed that Mohammed al Zawahiri was on the scene. He is the younger brother of Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda since Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. After spending more than a decade in an Egyptian prison, Mohammed al Zawahiri was suddenly freed in March.
In interviews with CNN and Al Jazeera, Mohammed al Zawahiri has attempted to portray himself as almost a moderate, willing to broker a peace between the Islamists and America. A close examination of his words reveals that is not true. Even in his most recent interviews Mohammed al Zawahiri justifies the 9/11 attacks and says he shares the same ideology as his older brother. He has gone further, gloating that no matter how many senior al Qaeda leaders America kills, al Qaeda’s ideology is spreading.
Ayman al Zawahiri made the same point in a video released on September 10. That video features a clip of the younger brother in one of his televised interviews. Ayman al Zawahiri also offered to exchange an American captive named Warren Weinstein, who is being held by al Qaeda, for the Blind Sheikh.
In fact, the more closely one looks at the events in Egypt the more they appear to have been deliberately staged by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups. “We called for the peaceful protest joined by different Islamic factions including the Islamic Jihad [and the] Hazem Abu Ismael movement,” Mohammed al Zawahiri admitted, according to CNN. The Islamic Jihad to which he referred is also known as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and is an important member in good standing of al Qaeda’s international jihadist coalition. Also participating in the anti-American rally was Gamaa Islamiya (IG), a designated terrorist organization that still reveres its spiritual leader, the Blind Sheikh. Weeks before anyone had heard of The Innocence of Muslims, the EIJ and IG had decided to rally for the sheikh’s freedom on September 11.
Known al Qaeda allies have been instrumental in fomenting the protests elsewhere as well. In Yemen, according to the New York Times, a cleric named Abdul Majid al Zindani “urged followers to emulate the protests in Libya and Egypt.” Hours later, protests erupted in Yemen, and the U.S. embassy in Sanaa was stormed. Zindani has been on the Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated global terrorists” since 2004. In designating him, Treasury cited Zindani’s close relationship with Osama bin Laden. Zindani is an especially influential jihadist cleric who leads a network of radical schools and whose students have regularly joined al Qaeda.
The protests spread across the globe quickly. It would be naïve to think that al Qaeda and its comrades in arms orchestrated all of them. It would be even more naïve, however, to attribute them to spontaneous outbursts against a pathetic film. The fact that they started on September 11 points to a deliberate plan by Islamist extremists and terrorists to make a splash once again.Their plan worked.
The Arab world has exploded in a fit of anti-American anger. An American ambassador has been killed. And the Obama administration is focusing on a video that up until September 10 almost no one had watched.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.