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.