The agents of outrage
The violence in Cairo and Benghazi looked spontaneous; it was anything but. Instead it was the product of a sequence of provocations, some mysterious, some obvious. It seemed to start in the US, then became magnified in Egypt and was brought to a deadly and sorrowful climax in Libya -- all on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The cast of characters in this tragedy included a shadowy filmmaker, a sinister pastor in Florida, an Egyptian-American Islamophobe, an Egyptian TV host, politically powerful Islamist extremist groups and, just possibly, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya. The instigators and executors didn't work in concert; they probably didn't even know they were in cahoots. Indeed, some of them would sooner die than knowingly help the others' causes.
As the Obama Administration struggles to contain the fallout of the killings, there's an increasing apprehension that this attack may herald a new genre of Middle East crisis. The Arab Spring replaced the harsh order of hated dictators with a flowering of neophyte democracies. But these governments --with weak mandates, ever shifting loyalties and poor security forces -- have made the region a more chaotic and unstable place, a place more susceptible than ever to rogue provocateurs fomenting violent upheavals, usually in the name of faith.
Collectively, these hatemongers form a global industry of outrage, working feverishly to give and take offence, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the US as in the Arab world. Add to this combination the presence of opportunistic jihadist groups seeking to capitalise on any mayhem, and you can begin to connect the dots between a tawdry little film and the deaths of four American diplomats.
Start with the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims, a purported biopic of Prophet Muhammad that, according to some accounts, sparked the demonstrations in Cairo and Benghazi. He goes by the name Sam Bacile, but almost nothing is known about him. Or even whether he exists.
The accusations his film makes about the Prophet are rehashed from old Islamophobic tropes. The movie was screened in Hollywood early this year but made no waves whatsoever. Bacile then posted a 14-minute series of clips on YouTube in July; that too got no traction. But it caught the attention of Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Copt in Washington, DC, known for incendiary anti-Muslim statements and blog posts. In early September, Sadek posted them on an Arabic-language blog. In the meantime, the film had attracted a singularly unattractive fan: Terry Jones, pastor of a church in Gainesville, Florida, who is notorious for burning the Koran and performing other Islamophobic stunts. He promoted the film online and added fuel to the flames by posting his own YouTube video.
Soon after that, the thread was picked up in Egypt by a TV host every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones: Sheik Khaled Abdallah of the Islamist satellite-TV station al-Nas. Supported by unknown backers, the channel traffics in demagoguery and hatemongering. Abdallah is its star. On September 8, Abdallah broadcast some of the clips, now dubbed in Arabic. His show, which has attracted over 300,000 views, was a dog whistle to the Salafists, a fundamentalist Islamic movement that makes up the second largest faction in the Egyptian parliament. For months, organised Salafist groups had been protesting in small numbers in front of the US embassy in Cairo. They were joined on September 11 by prominent leaders like Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's longtime deputy and now head of al-Qaeda. The leaders had left by the time the mob attacked the embassy and took down the US flag.
Not far from Egypt's western border, in the Libyan city of Benghazi, the movie had provoked another mob of several hundred mostly Salafist protesters to gather at the US consulate.
Reports from Benghazi say armed jihadists infiltrated the protesting crowds. An al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades is suspected to have carried out the attack, using the protest as a diversion.
The attack did not appear spontaneous or amateurish. If Muslims responded violently to every online insult to their faith, there would be riots in Cairo and Benghazi every day of the year. The internet is full of malefactors who constantly say, write or broadcast appalling things about Islam. (And there are plenty of Muslim Web nuts who vilify other belief systems.) It is the outrage machine, manned by people like Bacile, Jones and Abdallah, who push matters into anger overdrive. They know the outcome of their efforts will be violence and subversion. These men are enabled by media -- mainstream and fringe alike -- that give them air to bloviate and a political culture that makes little effort to take away their oxygen. (Abridged)