For months, the Obama administration has been subject to media criticism for its initial statements linking the September attacks in Benghazi, Libya, to an anti-Islam video that had triggered protests across the Middle East at that time. President Obama has been accused of attempting to deliberately deceive the public in order to benefit his reelection campaign. But several media reports, filed from Libya in September and October and citing the statements of witnesses, show that at the time there was a reasonable case that the video played a role in the events of that day.
Much of the media's criticism has been based on a false premise. They claim that rather than accurately identify the attacks as terrorism, the administration chose to attribute them to the film. But in addition to ignoring the fact that President Obama referred to the attacks as an "act of terror" at least twice in the days after September 11, this line of logic is a false dichotomy: it ignores the possibility that the attackers may have been terrorists, but their reason for engaging in that particular act of terror was because they were enraged by the film.
That is the conclusion that the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis came to in the initial draft of the much-ballyhooed talking points on the attack: They reported that the attacks had been "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo" -- protests triggered by the video -- and committed by "Islamic militants with ties to al Qa'ida." The latter point was removed from later drafts in order to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation into the perpetrators, but every version of the talking points stated that the attacks had been "inspired by the protests," and thus the video. In fact, CIA director David Petraeus criticized the final version of the talking points for not doing enough to link the attacks to the protests.
By definition, terrorism aims to further a political agenda. That means that terrorists have stated grievances, however horribly flawed those may be. Until the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack are captured, it is impossible to say for certain what their motivations were for engaging in those terrorist acts. But a review of reporting from Benghazi shows that the administration's comments suggesting that the video provided a motivation were not far-fetched.
It's no surprise that in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, reporting was often confused and contradictory. Some of the stories below state that there was a protest outside the diplomatic facility before the attack began, while others say that there was not (the State Department's review of the attacks concluded that there had been no protest).
But all four accounts provide on-the-scene reporting finding that residents of Benghazi - in some cases witnesses to the attacks citing the claims of the attackers themselves -- linked them to the anti-Islam video.
New York Times: "Libyans Who Witnessed the Assault And Know The Attackers" Say They Cited The Video. On October 16, in a story featuring Suliman Ali Zway's contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya, the Times reported that according to "Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers," the perpetrators had cited their anger at the video as the reason for their actions:
To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence.
''It was the Ansar al-Shariah people,'' said Mohamed Bishari, a 20-year-old neighbor who watched the assault and described the brigade he saw leading the attack. ''There was no protest or anything of that sort.''
United States intelligence agencies have reserved final judgment pending a full investigation, leaving open the possibility that anger at the video might have provided an opportunity for militants who already harbored anti-American feelings. But so far the intelligence assessments appear to square largely with local accounts. Whether the attackers are labeled ''Al Qaeda cells'' or ''aligned with Al Qaeda,'' as Republicans have suggested, depends on whether that label can be used as a generic term for a broad spectrum of Islamist militants, encompassing groups like Ansar al-Shariah whose goals were primarily local, as well as those who aspire to join a broader jihad against the West.
Reuters Reporter On NPR: "Almost Everybody Here Believes That It Was A Reaction To The Movie." One the September 13 edition of NPR's Morning Edition, the network interviewed Hadeel Al-Shalchi of Reuters, who "ha[d] been talking with authorities and protestors." According to Al-Shalchi, Libyans who visited the ruins of the diplomatic facility linked the attack to the film. From Morning Edition:
AL-SHALCHI: In Benghazi at the consulate, the consulate is now not secure at all, like, you can walk in and out of it. And people all day yesterday were doing that. They would come, sort of take a stroll inside the grounds, you know, take pictures and little videos of the damage.
The majority of those people said two things. They said, first of all, why did the United States allow something like this movie to happen? Because at the end of the day, almost everybody here believes that it was a reaction to the movie that - and they believe that the United States had a responsibility to stop the production or...
STEVE INSKEEP (HOST): This is a film that was spreading on the Internet that was seen as insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Go on.
AL-SHALCHI: Exactly. And so they said, why did this happen? But in the next breath, they say: But we don't condone this kind of thing. There are civilized ways to show and express our anger, and this is not one of them. This should never have happened.
Al Jazeera: Attackers Were Responding To News Of "American Movie Insulting The Prophet Mohammed. On September 12, Al Jazeera producer Suleiman El Dressi reported from Benghazi:
About 11:30 PM, a group of people calling themselves as "Islamic law supporters" heard the news that there will be an American movie insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Once they heard this news they came out of their military garrison and they went into the street calling [unintelligible] to gather and go ahead and attack the American consulate in Benghazi.
Associated Press: "Witness Accounts... Suggest The Militants May Have Used The Film Controversy As A Cover For the Attack." An October 27 Associated Press account bylined Tripoli, Libya, reported that witness accounts both "corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault" and "suggest the militants may have used the film controversy as a cover for the attack." From the article:
There was no sign of a spontaneous protest against an American-made movie denigrating Islam's Prophet Muhammad. But a lawyer passing by the scene said he saw the militants gathering around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film. Within an hour or so, the assault began, guns blazing as the militants blasted into the compound.
One of the consulate's private Libyan guards said masked militants grabbed him and beat him, one of them calling him "an infidel protecting infidels who insulted the prophet."
The witness accounts gathered by The Associated Press give a from-the-ground perspective for the sharply partisan debate in the U.S. over the attack that left U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. They corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault. But they also suggest the militants may have used the film controversy as a cover for the attack.
A day after the Benghazi attack, an unidentified Ansar al-Shariah spokesman said the militia was not involved "as an organization" -- leaving open the possibility members were involved. He praised the attack as a popular "uprising" sparked by the anti-Islam film, further propagating the image of a mob attack against the consulate.
So far, the attackers' motives can only be speculated at.