Since September 11, 2012, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist strikes by Al Qaeda in the US Homeland, there have been violent incidents outside the US Embassies in Cairo and Sanaa in Yemen and outside the US Consulate in Benghazi in Libya.
The incidents were triggered off by protests by some of the local Muslims against a video clip believed to have been uploaded by an unidentified person in the US projecting Islam and its Holy Prophet in negative colours.
According to speculative reports of the British and American media, a person, suspected to be a Coptic Christian of Egyptian origin living in the US is reported to have produced a film on Islam which was shown to a small audience in California in June 2012. A video clip of this with no Arabic sub-titles was allegedly uploaded by him on the Internet on July 1. Nobody in the Islamic world noticed it. Subsequently, he had the same clip uploaded with Arabic sub-titles. It was noticed by an Islamic TV channel of Egypt which drew attention to it. This led to the first demonstration in Cairo. Thereafter, it spread to Benghazi and Sanaa. Demonstrations are being reported from other Islamic countries too.
The crowds which demonstrated outside the US Embassies in Cairo and Sanaa were reportedly unarmed. They threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the security forces guarding the missions whom they tried to overpower in order to pull down the US flag. The security forces were able to control the demonstrators by using tearsmoke.
In Benghazi too, outside the US Consulate, there was a similar demonstration against the US by a group of unarmed local Muslims. The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens who is based in Tripoli, was then on a visit to Benghazi and was inside the Consulate. The demonstrators did not appear to have been aware of this.
While this demonstration was going on without posing any major problem to the security guards, another group of armed Muslims carrying fire-arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) appeared on the scene and launched a commando-style attack on the Consulate. There was a heavy exchange of fire and use of grenades. The armed intruders with others entered the Consulate complex and tried to set fire to the buildings.
By the time their attack could be brought under control after four hours, the Ambassador and three other American employees were killed. The circumstances under which they were killed are not clear.
The CNN TV channel quoted State Department officials as saying that the two incidents at the diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi were not related and that they believed the Benghazi violence was a "clearly planned attack." The CNN quoted a senior official as saying: "It was not an innocent mob. The video or 9/11 made a handy excuse and could be fortuitous from their perspective but this was a clearly planned military-type attack."
On September 10, Al Qaeda had released a video message by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, its Amir, who is an Egyptian, confirming that his No.2 Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan cleric who handled Al Qaeda’s motivational and propaganda work, had been killed in a US Drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan on June 4,2012. The US had announced his death in June itself but Al Qaeda confirmed it only on September 10. This has given rise to speculation that the commando-style attack on the US Consulate might have been in retaliation for the death of the Libyan cleric, but Al Qaeda itself has not come out with any statement on the Benghazi attack so far.
The speculation in Benghazi is that the commando-style attack was probably carried out by Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of the Sharia).The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates from Yemen, has also been calling itself since last year as the Ansar al-Sharia. It is not yet clear whether the Ansar suspected in the Benghazi attack is the same as the Yemen-based wing of Al Qaeda or is an indigenous Libyan organisation.
In the protest movement in Egypt that preceded the resignation of Hosni Mubarak last year, there was no participation by external jihadi elements. It was a purely Egyptian movement with no involvement by Al Qaeda or its supporters. Moreover, the overthrow of Mubarak did not affect the command and control of the Egyptian Army and the Egyptian intelligence, which continued to monitor the activities Al Qaeda. There was no intelligence and security vacuum in Egypt.
When Qaddafi put up a stiff resistance to the US-sponsored external intervention to bring about a regime change in Libya, the US and other NATO countries recruited, trained and armed a number of external radical elements for using them against Qaddafi’s army. The brutal massacre of Qaddafi and his aides resulted in a collapse of the command and control of the Libyan Army and intelligence. As a result, there has been a security and intelligence vacuum in Libya. Apparently, taking advantage of this, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have set up sleeper cells in Libya.
The events in the coming days and weeks may take a course similar to what happened in the Islamic world after the publication of caricatures of the Holy Prophet in a Danish journal on September 30, 2005. Starting from April 2006, for a little over two years there was a rash of violent incidents in different parts of the Islamic world including an explosion outside the Danish Embassy in Islamabad in June 2008.
The present demonstrations are in protest against the film. It is likely that Islamic fundamentalist elements may demand the identification, arrest and prosecution of the person living in the US who produced the film. The US may not agree to this just as the Danish government refused to act against the cartoonist on grounds of his freedom of expression. The US refusal to act might become a cause for further anger.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.