On and around September 11, 2012, al Qaeda attacked multiple American assets around the world. The attack that has received the most attention is the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. But the U.S. consulate in Libya was not the only diplomatic facility assaulted by al Qaeda-affiliated groups in September. Terrorists with ties to al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, were involved in at least three other U.S. embassy sieges in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and possibly elsewhere.
A timeline of these assaults is presented below.
Egypt (September 11) – Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, admitted to helping organize the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Mohammed al Zawahiri is a longtime Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative who was jailed in Egypt until earlier this year. The EIJ is a core part of al Qaeda’s joint venture. Both the EIJ and Gamaa Islamiya (IG), another close ally of al Qaeda, planned to protest outside of the U.S. embassy in Cairo before the anti-Islam film became known.
The day before the embassy protest in Cairo, on September 10, al Qaeda released a video of Ayman al Zawahiri, who called on jihadists to exact revenge for the death of Abu Yahya al Libi. A drone strike killed Abu Yahya in June, making the al Qaeda chieftain’s delayed eulogy curious.
Ayman al Zawahiri used the video to argue that al Qaeda has not been defeated because senior al Qaeda leaders have been killed in northern Pakistan and elsewhere. Instead, Ayman al Zawahiri said, al Qaeda’s “message has spread amongst our Muslim Ummah, which received it with acceptance and responded to it.”
The video then cuts to a clip of Mohammed al Zawahiri, who has made similar arguments in his post-detention interviews. During an interview with CNN earlier this year, the younger Zawahiri said that al Qaeda’s strength is “not in its leaders but in its ideology.”
Demonstrators at U.S. embassy protest in Cairo chanted, “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!”
One can speculate that embassy protests and riots were intended to demonstrate the Zawahiris’ point.
Libya (September 11) – Multiple al Qaeda-affiliated groups have been linked to the complex assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. These groups include al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Ansar al Sharia militia, which is headed by an ex-Guantanamo detainee and known al Qaeda operative named Sufyan Ben Qumu. Members of the Ansar al Sharia militia were in contact with AQIM in the hours after the attack, Eli Lake reported at The Daily Beast.
Other al Qaeda personalities have been linked the terrorist assault as well. One of them, according to the Wall Street Journal, is Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who was released from prison last year. Some sources have identified Ahmad as a senior EIJ leader prior to his imprisonment.
The Journal reports that Ahmad “has petitioned” Ayman al Zawahiri, “to whom he has long ties, for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing.” Ahmad “is building his own terror group, say Western officials, who call it the Jamal Network.” And “[f]ighters linked” to Ahmad are thought to have taken part in the attack on the consulate.
The Journal added another intriguing detail: “U.S. officials believe [Mohammed al Zawahiri] has helped Mr. Ahmad connect with the al Qaeda chief.” EIJ members are suspected of funneling Egyptian militants to training camps in Libya as well.
The attack in Benghazi came the month after a congressional report warned about al Qaeda’s growing presence in Libya. Ayman al Zawahiri has dispatched senior al Qaeda members to Libya to build a clandestine network that, according to the report’s authors, is on the verge of becoming a fully operational network.
Yemen (September 13) – The U.S. embassy in Sanaa was stormed after Sheikh Abdul Majeed al Zindani called for protests, according to the New York Times. Zindani is a known al Qaeda supporter.
In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department added Zindani to its list of designated terrorist supporters, calling him an Osama bin Laden “loyalist.” Zindani “has a long history of working with bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders,” Treasury explained. Zindani “has been able to influence and support many terrorist causes, including actively recruiting for al Qaeda training camps” and “played a key role in the purchase of weapons on behalf of al Qaeda and other terrorists.”
Zindani oversees a network of radical schools, including Al Iman University in Sanaa. Al Iman’s graduates have included terrorists and extremists, including John Walker Lindh (the “American Taliban”) and al Qaeda operatives.
Zindani’s son, Mohamed, has previously called for attacks against the U.S. embassy in Sanaa. In March, according to published accounts, Mohamed al Zindani “called on his fellow Yemenis to raise the flag of Islam and wage war on the American infidels, starting with US ambassador to Yemen, Gerard Feierstein.”
In May, according to UPI, Mohamed al Zindani urged his “followers to rally to Ansar al Sharia, an offshoot of al-Qaida in the southern province of Abyan.” Ansar al Sharia in Yemen is, in fact, the sister organization of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both are headed by Nasir al Wuhayshi, bin Laden’s former aide de camp in Afghanistan.
Tunisia (September 14) – The assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis was orchestrated by a notorious al Qaeda terrorist named Seifallah ben Hassine, aka Abu Iyad al Tunisi. The embassy staff had already been evacuated, but Hassine’s mob ransacked American property, including cars and a school.
Hassine is the leader of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. The Ansar al Sharia brand, as explained above, is being used by al Qaeda-linked groups in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Hassine was released from a Tunisian prison in 2011, after being convicted in 2003 of belonging to an al Qaeda-affiliated group. In 2000, Hassine co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG). According to the United Nations, the TCG was created “in coordination with” al Qaeda.
Hassine reportedly met with both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two days prior to the attacks, on September 9, 2001, two Tunisian assassins killed Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. The assassins were supplied with forged passports by another senior TCG member. The hit on Massoud was an integral part of al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot as it removed a key American ally, and an enemy of the Taliban and al Qaeda, from the battlefield before the fight for Afghanistan even began.
Al Qaeda’s and Hassine’s TCG plotted terrorist attacks in Europe in early 2001. One of the plots targeted the U.S. embassy in Rome. In April 2001, Italian authorities arrested a dual TCG-al Qaeda operative in Italy who oversaw the plot. The plot was so serious, according to the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report for 2001, that the U.S. Embassies in Rome and the Vatican City, as well as the U.S. consulates in Naples and Milan, were closed to the public. It was the first time the embassy in Rome was closed since the Gulf War a decade earlier.
Thus, Hassine and his operatives have long targeted U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Other Al Qaeda-linked Embassy Riots and Protests
In some countries reporting on events remains sketchy. In Sudan, for example, local press reports indicate that Salafi-jihadist groups with an affinity for al Qaeda were responsible for assaulting Western embassies. The U.S., German, and UK embassies all came under attack in Khartoum. Al Qaeda has a longstanding presence in Sudan, which was home to Osama bin Laden and his operatives during the early 1990s.
Elsewhere, al Qaeda-linked personalities led demonstrations near U.S. diplomatic facilities. On September 16, in Lahore, Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chieftain Hafiz Muhammad Saeed led a protest. “At least 8,000 people” attended, according to the Associated Press. The New York Times adds that the protest took place just half a mile from U.S. Consulate. The protest “remained peaceful,” according to the Times, but Saeed called for the creators of Innocence of Muslims to “be hanged to set an example.”
In April, the U.S. government offered a $10 million bounty for Saeed, making him one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet. Saeed has been implicated in LeT’s November 2008 siege of Mumbai, but there was likely more to the bounty. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound reportedly show that Saeed remained in contact with bin Laden until shortly before the al Qaeda master’s death in May 2011. The documents also purportedly show that bin Laden received surveillance reports used to plan the attacks in Mumbai, suggesting deep collusion between the LeT and al Qaeda. Saeed was bin Laden’s ally dating to the 1980s.
Saeed has sought to inflame tensions further since the protest in Lahore. “Obama has said he cannot block the film,” Saeed said during an interview with Reuters. “What does that say?”
“Obama's statements have caused a religious war,” Saeed added. “This is a very sensitive issue. This is not going to be resolved soon. Obama's statement has started a cultural war.”
From the perspective of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, Saeed’s comments are likely what this was all about. They want to show that al Qaeda’s ideology has not been defeated, that the terror network still has street muscle, and that they can kill American diplomats.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.