Libya Consulate Attack: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Didn't Sound Alarm About Threat Of Unrest

09/13/2012 07:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2012

* "Can't freak out on everything broadcast"

* Congressional inquiries seen likely

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON, Sept 13 (Reuters) - U.S. officials say they believe an Arabic talk show last Saturday showing parts of an anti-Muslim video made in the United States was the spark that set off violent attacks on U.S. missions in Libya and Egypt, but acknowledge the broadcast did not prompt a major upgrade in security precautions.

On Tuesday, four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in an attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that U.S. officials said may have been planned by one or more militant factions. On the same day, protesters in Cairo breached the U.S. Embassy's walls, and the protests have since spread to other countries, including Yemen, Bangladesh and Kuwait.

An Egyptian TV network, al-Nas, broadcast last Saturday what its presenters described as extracts from an English-language film denigrating the Prophet Mohammad, which it said had been uploaded on the YouTube website by "migrant Coptics," a reference to exiled members of a Christian sect with a large minority presence among Egypt's Muslim majority.

The clips broadcast on al-Nas were taken from a short film available on the Internet. It is called "Innocence of Muslims," and portrays the Prophet - played by what appears to be a young American actor - as a womanizer, thug and child molester.

Three U.S. officials said the broadcast did not prompt strong warnings from intelligence agencies or the State Department of possible threats to U.S. diplomatic missions in the Islamic world.

One official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was at least one specific warning about possible unrest in the region that was circulated within the government, but was not so alarming as to lead to a major upgrade in security for a possible emergency.

The lack of a major upgrade in precautions may show how difficult it is for officials to assess threats that first emerge on social media. The threats can seemingly come out of nowhere and gather strength rapidly.

The events also underline the role of the Middle East's more freewheeling media, loosened from state restrictions after the fall of longtime dictators.

For many Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous, and caricatures or other characterizations have in the past provoked violent protests across the Muslim world.

"The number of potentially inflammatory things that are said or broadcast every week (is so large) ... that warning about all of them would be useless," said Paul Pillar, former top U.S. intelligence analyst for the Middle East and South Asia. It was "impossible to predict" the kind of violent reaction that occurred in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

One U.S. official said, "You can't freak out on everything that's broadcast."

That official and others said the airwaves and Internet were filled with hateful material and U.S. authorities could be "crying wolf" if they issued a warning every time an anti-Islamic broadside was aired or posted online.

A senior congressional official said the question of what the United States knew about pre-Sept. 11, 2012, threats and what it did about them would likely be examined in legislative in q uiries into the Libyan and Egyptian violence.

Another aide indicated it would be difficult to fault U.S. agencies on the issue.


U.S. facilities in the Middle East were already on heightened alert earlier this week due to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

The FBI has opened an investigation into the killings in Benghazi. U.S. officials said Attorney General Eric Holder was cutting short a foreign trip and would return to Washington on Friday to manage the Libya investigation.

Al-Nas is an Egyptian Islamic satellite channel whose programming ranges from Islamic scholars delivering religious edicts to shows about cooking and medicine.

Before Egypt's 2011 revolution, authorities periodically suspended privately owned religious satellite channels such as al-Nas, many of which follow conservative Salafi Islam, for allegedly violating broadcasting licenses by promoting religious or sectarian hatred and providing dubious medical advice.

U.S. officials believe that al-Nas' Saturday broadcast of a talk show hosted by Sheikh Khalid Abdallah was the flashpoint for the unrest.

Egyptian political scientist Omar Ashour said Abdallah was a controversial Islamist host of a TV show that specialized in criticizing liberals, often inviting firebrand commentators to mock secular Egyptians. His show tends to be popular with Salafi Muslims, but not with followers of the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood that dominates Egypt's government.

A European security official said intelligence reporting indicated the inflammatory clips from the American film run on the talk show had been translated and dubbed into Arabic by Copts, possibly members of the sect living in the United States.

In their commentary on the film clips, the hosts of al-Nas' program alleged the material had been uploaded by "migrant Coptics," according to Flashpoint Global Partners, a firm that monitors militant websites for government and private clients.

According to Flashpoint's translation, the al-Nas presenters at one point in their introduction to the anti-Mohammad film, specifically mentioned "radical pastor Terry Jones," the Florida preacher who staged a number of anti-Islamic events over the past year. Jones has confirmed he was involved in promoting the film.

09/15/2012 10:05 PM EDT

Egypt PM: Some Cairo Protesters Paid To Protest

Egypt's Prime Minister Hesham Kandil told CNN that some people involved in the recent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were paid to protest. He also said that some were there on their own accord, though.

For more on his comments, click here.

09/15/2012 8:16 PM EDT

Libya President: 'Foreigners' Involved In Attack

Both Libyans and "foreigners" carried out the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, said Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf.

"We have assumptions and we have some information, and all that information we have now leads to the same direction about the perpetrators, the criminals," he told NBC.

For more on Magariaf's comments, click here.

09/15/2012 7:58 PM EDT

More Details Of Libya Attack Emerge

A local security official walked CNN through the horrific attacks in Libya that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens dead. Read the report here.

09/15/2012 7:32 PM EDT

Senior Libya Official Tells CNN: No Evidence That Attack Was Pre-Planned

@ JomanaCNN :

One senior official just told me they have no evidence yet to support President's statements that attack was pre-planned. #Libya

09/15/2012 7:24 PM EDT

U.S. Issues Warnings For Sudan, Tunisia

From the AP:

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Saturday ordered the departure of all family members and non-essential U.S. government personnel from posts in Sudan and Tunisia and is issuing travel warnings to American citizens in the two countries due to security concerns over anti-American violence.

"Given the security situation in Tunis and Khartoum, the State Department has ordered the departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel from both posts, and issued parallel travel warnings to American citizens," said Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman.

To read more, click here.

09/15/2012 7:19 PM EDT

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula

anti islam film

In this image from video provided by CBS2-KCAL9, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man behind the anti-Muslim movie that has inflamed the Middle East, is escorted by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies from his home, early Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Cerritos, Calif. Nakoula, 55, was interviewed by federal probation officers at a Los Angeles sheriff's station but was not arrested or detained, authorities said early Saturday. (AP Photo/CBS2-KCAL9)

09/15/2012 5:10 PM EDT

Image Purportedly Shows Camp Bastion

camp bastion

This image from AP video obtained from the SITE Intel Group posted by al-Emarah Jihadi Studio, an Afghan Taliban media unit who released two clips on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, purports to show smoke rising over Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, after what the Taliban media unit says is an attack at the base. (AP Photo/SITE Intelligence Group)

09/15/2012 5:03 PM EDT

Far-Right Group Trying To Screen Anti-Islam Film

According to an AFP report, a far-right group in Germany wants to screen 'Innocence of Muslims,' the film that sparked protests around the world, in Berlin.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told Der Spiegel he would use every legal means at his disposal to stop them.

“Such groups and organizations only want to provoke Germany’s Muslims,” he said, accusing them of recklessly pouring oil on the fire.

Read the full story here.

09/15/2012 4:36 PM EDT

Libyan President Meets U.S. Consulate Guard

libya attack

President Mohammed el-Megarif, fourth right, meets an unidentified Libyan guard of the U.S. Consulate who was wounded following the deadly attack on September 11, 2012, at Benghazi Medical Center in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. (AP Photo)

09/15/2012 4:30 PM EDT

'Un-Islamic' Attacks

Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority on Saturday condemned the attacks on U.S. embassies as un-Islamic, according to a report by Reuters.

"It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction," he said in a speech carried by state news agency SPA.

Read the full report here.

Protests And Attacks
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