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.
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.
September 11, Benghazi (beginning around 3:40 p.m. EDT) – The terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate begins. It lasts hours. The terrorists use AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades in a complex assault on the compound. The assailants use diesel fuel to set the compound’s buildings ablaze.
September 11 (10:08 p.m. EDT) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton releases a statement on the day’s events. “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
September 12, Washington (10:43 a.m. EDT) – In the White House Rose Garden, President Obama addresses the nation concerning the attack in Benghazi. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” he says. “But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.” The president adds, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
September 12 – The press is connecting the dots to al Qaeda. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer tells viewers that while it is “unclear right now . . . it sounds like that al Qaeda operation in Libya is very, very real indeed.” Blitzer continues: “All of this suggests to me . . . that the attack yesterday on the U.S. ambassador and other Americans on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 was not necessarily simply a coincidence.”
September 12, Washington (evening) – Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick F. Kennedy describes the events in Benghazi as a terrorist attack during a private briefing for House and Senate staffers, according to Fox News.
September 13, Sanaa, Yemen – The U.S. embassy is stormed after Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani calls for protests, according to the New York Times. Zindani is a known al Qaeda supporter who was designated an Osama bin Laden “loyalist” by the Treasury Department in 2004.
September 13, Washington (evening) – Secretary Clinton honors the end of Ramadan alongside Libyan ambassador Ali Aujali, who denounces the “terrorist attack” in Libya. Clinton refers to the attack as “the actions of a small and savage group” and again denounces the anti-Islam video. “Unfortunately, however, over the last 24 hours, we have also seen violence spread elsewhere,” Clinton says. “Some seek to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory, despicable material posted on the Internet. As I said earlier today, the United States rejects both the content and the message of that video. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
September 14, Tunis, Tunisia – The U.S. embassy is assaulted by a group called Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. That group is headed by a notorious al Qaeda-linked terrorist named Seifallah ben Hassine, aka Abu Iyad al Tunisi. The embassy staff has already been evacuated, but Hassine’s mob ransacks American property, including cars and a school. In 2000, Hassine cofounded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG). According to the United Nations, the TCG was created “in coordination with” al Qaeda. Hassine spent years in prison in Tunisia but was freed in 2011.
September 14, Andrews Air Force Base (2:46 p.m. EDT) – President Obama and Secretary Clinton attend the transfer of remains ceremony for Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans killed in Benghazi. “This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country,” Clinton says. “We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.” Clinton quotes from a letter written by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who condemned the attack as “an act of ugly terror.”
September 14, Washington – “It was a terrorist attack, organized and carried out by terrorists,” notably 15 members of “al Qaeda or radical Islamists,” says Senator John McCain after a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting. “This was a calculated act of terror on the part of a small group of jihadists, not a mob that somehow attacked and sacked our embassy,” McCain says. “People don’t go to demonstrate and carry RPGs and automatic weapons.”
September 16 (Sunday morning) – U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice goes on five Sunday talk shows to explain what happened in Benghazi. Her narrative is wrong in almost every detail. On CBS News’s Face the Nation, for example, Rice says the attack was “sparked by this hateful video.” She says that “spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi . . . extremist elements, individuals, joined in that—in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.” Rice adds, “We do not . . . have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.” Rice makes similar comments on the other four shows.
Libyan president Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf also appears on Face the Nation and directly contradicts Rice’s claims, saying that the attack was “planned—definitely” and that some of those arrested in connection with the attack are associated with al Qaeda.
September 17, Washington (1:57 p.m. EDT) – During a press briefing, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is asked about Ambassador Rice’s comments the day before. “I’d simply say that I don’t have any information beyond what Ambassador Rice shared with you and that her assessment does reflect our initial assessment as a government,” Nuland says. Asked if the attack in Benghazi was an act of terror, Nuland responds, “I’m not going to put labels on this until we have a complete investigation” and “I don’t think we know enough.”
September 18 (evening) – President Obama appears on The Late Show with David Letterman. “The ambassador to Libya killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi, is this an act of war, are we at war now? What happens here?” Letterman asks. President Obama responds: “No. Here’s what happened. You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character who is extremely offensive [sic] video directed at Muhammad and Islam. . . . So this caused great offense in much of the Muslim world. But what also happened was extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the one, the consulate in Libya.”
September 19, Washington – National Counterterrorism director Matthew Olsen labels the attack in Benghazi a “terrorist attack.”
September 20, Washington – White House press secretary Jay Carney calls the attack in Benghazi terrorism for the first time.
September 20 – CBS News reports that “there was never an anti-American protest outside of the consulate” in Benghazi. Instead, according to witnesses, the consulate “came under planned attack.” CBS News adds: “That is in direct contradiction to the administration’s account of the incident.”
September 20 – President Obama is asked about the attack in Libya and other embassy assaults during an appearance on Univision. “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by the extremists to see if they could directly harm U.S. interests,” President Obama says.
September 21 – “What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans,” Secretary Clinton says.
September 24 – President Obama appears on The View. When asked if it was a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Obama responds: “There’s no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. What’s clear is that, around the world, there are still a lot of threats out there.”
September 25, New York – Before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama gives an impassioned defense of free speech, while denouncing The Innocence of Muslims. He attributes the events of “the last two weeks” to “a crude and disgusting video that sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.” The president continues: “Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.” The president mentions terrorism only in passing: “Al Qaeda has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more.” The president does not mention al Qaeda or affiliated groups or terrorism in the context of the attack in Benghazi.
September 26, New York – At the U.N., Secretary Clinton publicly connects Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to the attack in Benghazi, saying that AQIM members “are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.” The New York Times reports that she is “the highest-ranking Obama administration official to publicly make the connection.”
September 27 – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the attack in Benghazi was an act of terror.
September 28 – The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) releases a statement taking responsibility for attributing the attack in Benghazi to a spontaneous protest. The ODNI says that initially “there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo.” The ODNI “provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.”
October 9, Washington – Two senior State Department officials brief the press on the attack in Benghazi, saying the assault was “unprecedented” and there was no protest beforehand. When asked what led the Obama administration to conclude that a protest precipitated the violence, one official responded: “That is a question that you would have to ask others. That was not our conclusion. I’m not saying that we had a conclusion, but we outlined what happened.” This directly contradicts earlier statements made by senior State Department officials.
October 10, Washington – Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb testifies before the House Oversight Committee, “Dozens of attackers . . . launched a full-scale assault” on the Benghazi consulate “that was unprecedented in its size and intensity.” Lamb makes no mention of a protest.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.