In his now infamous September 14, 2012 email, Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, had it exactly backwards. The September 11, 2012 attacks on the Cairo embassy and the Benghazi consulate were rooted in a broad failure of policy, not an internet video, which was later politically transformed by the Obama Administration from a pretext to the cause of the attacks.
The planned demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was announced on August 30, 2012 by the Salafist Gamaa Islamiyya (IG), a State Department-designated terrorist group. It was designed to protest the ongoing imprisonment of its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Interest in the anti-Islam video titled “Innocence of Muslims” spread throughout the Egyptian media beginning on September 8, 2012, when Khaled Abdullah, an ultraconservative Salafi, showed it on the Egyptian al-Nas channel.
Spontaneous anger over the video has been widely cited as the cause of the embassy protest in Cairo, but clear evidence shows that jihadists including senior members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a group that merged with al Qaeda, and a senior IG leader who has longstanding ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership used clips from that film that appeared on Egyptian television as a pretext to incite a mob.
After meetings between the American political officer and the Salafists, the embassy leadership in Cairo attempted to mitigate the video’s impact by releasing a statement before the protest (6am Washington time) distancing the United States from its content. The press release was requested by Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, written by visiting public affairs officer Larry Schwartz and approved after release by Ambassador Anne Patterson, who was on route to Washington DC.
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
A copy was forwarded to the State Department, about which staff officers later expressed concern, but the press release by the Embassy in Cairo went out before Washington arrived at work the morning of September 11, 2012.
The precise effect of the statement on limiting the violence associated with the protest is not known, but given the circumstances, it seems to have been a logical course of action. On the other hand, it might have inadvertently heightened awareness among the international media, who widely and inaccurately designated the video as the cause of, rather than the pretext for, the Cairo protest.
The embassy statement was attacked by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, lawmakers, and conservatives around the country as an inappropriate “apology” and a failure to stand up for American principles such as freedom of speech.
Actually, it appears to have been nothing more than a good-faith effort made by diplomatic professionals on the ground to calm tensions in the face of an unpredictable situation.
Even though Washington DC may not have contributed to the Cairo statement, the Obama Administration seemed to be mesmerized by the nearly unanimous agreement in the press that the video spawned the Cairo protest. That may have encouraged the administration to apply the same narrative as an explanation for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi as a political solution for a vexing foreign policy dilemma.
It is now clear, however, that the video had nothing to do with the attack on the Benghazi consulate.
Benghazi is within range of Egyptian television and the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia attempted to mimic the Cairo video pretext in Benghazi, but without success.
According to Associated Press, five Libyan witnesses saw no protest about the movie before the attack, but one of them did see Ansar al-Sharia using the movie as a bit of attack theater:
“Khaled al-Haddar, a lawyer who passed by the scene as he headed to his nearby home, said he saw the fighters gathering a few youths from among passers-by and urged them to chant against the film.
‘I am certain they had planned to do something like this, I don’t know if it was hours or days, but it was definitely planned,’ said al-Haddar. ‘From the way they set up the checkpoints and gathered people, it was very professional.’
The guard said he saw no protesters.”
It is important to note that action against US facilities in Arab capitals was expected on September 11, 2012, but, according to sources, Benghazi was not, at least among many outside of Libya.
It was unique. Because of the clandestine operation being run out of Benghazi, efforts were made not to draw attention to what was happening there. That could explain why local militias were paid to provide security, why requests for increased security were denied and why the US military was either unprepared to respond or told not to do so.
Was it the objective of the Obama Administration simply to “bundle in” Benghazi with the other protests and blame the video as the cause for all of them?
At 10:07pm on September 11, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent out a press release blaming the Benghazi attack on the internet video. After which, the flow of information to media outlets, sometimes originating from anonymous US officials, was controlled by the State Department in Washington DC and the White House.
Blaming the video conveniently disguised the reality of Obama’s foreign policy: the resurgence of jihadists in Muslim Brotherhood-governed Egypt, the continuing demand for the Blind Sheikh’s release (which underscored the jihadists’ influence), and the very real danger that jihadists would attack the embassy (which demonstrated that al-Qaeda was anything but “decimated”).
It may have also prevented a thorough examination of the possible passivity or complicity of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government in the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi and the potentially dangerous consequences of arming Islamic factions over which the US has little control, where the weapons we supply may someday be used against us.