Timeline: New York Times' Stance on Al-Qaeda, YouTube in Benghazi Attack

Timeline: New York Times' Stance on Al-Qaeda, YouTube in Benghazi Attack

The recent New York Times so-called “bombshell” story by David Kirkpatrick arguing that the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi was ultimately sparked by an online video found to be offensive to Muslims is a meme the paper has been arguing since Kirkpatrick first covered the attack on September 12, 2012

The piece included reporting from David Kirkpatrick in Cairo, Steven Lee Myers in Washington, Osama Alfitory and Suliman Ali Zway from Benghazi, Mai Ayyad from Cairo, Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane from Washington, and Alan Cowell from London.

American and European officials said that while many details about the attack remained unclear, the assailants seemed organized, well trained and heavily armed, and they appeared to have at least some level of advance planning.  But the officials cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether the attack was related to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by an Islamist brigade formed during last year’s uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon. Their attack followed by just a few hours the storming of the compound surrounding the United States Embassy in Cairo by an unarmed mob protesting the same video. On Wednesday, new crowds of protesters gathered outside the United States Embassies in Tunis and Cairo.

The wave of unrest set off by the video, posted online in the United States two months ago and dubbed into Arabic for the first time eight days ago, has further underscored the instability of the countries that cast off their longtime dictators in the Arab Spring revolts. It also cast doubt on the adequacy of security preparations at American diplomatic outposts in the volatile region.

The administration took hold of the idea that the amateurish video made by an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian California resident was the root of the problem and sent then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on to five Sunday talk news shows to promote that notion. 

However, the story was never that simple and, as evidence mounted showing the attack was pre-planned and the attackers likely had links to Al Qaeda, the Times reporting to support its initial assertion about the video the day after the attack would appear in pieces from time to time. 

In a September 26, 2012 piece, the Times reported that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that there was an Al Qaeda link to the attack. Kirkpatrick, whose most recent Benghazi piece in the Times argues there was no Al Qaeda connection in the attack, contributed to the September 26 piece by Steven Lee Myers:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday suggested there was a link between the Qaeda franchise in North Africa and the attack at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the American ambassador and three others. She was the highest-ranking Obama administration official to publicly make the connection, and her comments intensified what is becoming a fiercely partisan fight over whether the attack could have been prevented.

Mrs. Clinton did not offer any new evidence of a Qaeda link, and officials later said the question would be officially settled only after the F.B.I. completed a criminal inquiry, which could take months. But they said they had not ruled out the involvement of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — an affiliate of the international terrorist group with origins in Algeria — in an attack the administration initially described as a spontaneous protest turned violent.

Her remarks added to the administration’s evolving and at times muddled explanation of what happened on the evening of Sept. 11 and into the next morning. Republicans in Congress have accused President Obama of playing down possible terrorist involvement in the midst of a re-election campaign in which killing Osama bin Laden and crippling Al Qaeda are cited as major achievements.

“Now with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions,” Clinton told United Nation leaders and officials. She added, “And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”

The September 2012 Times piece by Myers and Kirkpatrick goes on to describe the response from “top militia leaders” in Benghazi to Clinton’s remarks.

Top militia leaders in Benghazi have dismissed the possibility that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb played a role in the attacks or had a foothold in eastern Libya. Benghazi residents have said they believe the brigade that conducted the attack could easily have managed the assault on its own, because it included more than 100 heavily armed fighters.

By October 14, 2012, however, when more evidence showing the pre-planned nature of the attack had surfaced, New York Times editor Joseph Kahn stood by his paper’s previous reporting immediately after the attack regarding the 14-minute YouTube video. Kahn told the Huffington Post at the time:  

The reporting you are referring to was done on the ground in Benghazi as the attack was unfolding and in its immediate aftermath. We have a reporter who was in Benghazi as the attack was unfolding (a Libyan contract writer). He observed unarmed as well as armed people at the scene, and it was clear that at least some of the people involved in the incident were informed and motivated by the video.

That reporter and our Cairo-based correspondent, David Kirkpatrick, have since then repeatedly talked with members of the Ansar brigade that we (well before the State Dept) reported was involved in the attack. We have no reason to suspect in those subsequent contacts that our initial reporting was wrong, and we have had several stories that filled out the timeline of events more thoroughly than was possible in the immediate aftermath.

It may well be true that the attack was planned before the video or simply took advantage of the video. But there is no reason to believe that what participants in the attack told our reporter was false, or that we were wrong to report it.

Security and terrorism experts Fred Burton and Samuel Katz point out in their book on the Benghazi attack that the video caused protests numerous U.S. embassies in the Middle East three days after an Islamist television network aired scenes from the video. Until that point the video was online since July 1, 2012: 

..according to a BBC review, “depicted Islam as a religion of violence and hate, and its Prophet Muhammed as a foolish and power-hungry man.” Other reviews claimed that ‘Innocence of Muslims’ depicts Muhammed as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse…and [who] is made to look like a murderer and adulterer as well.”

The purposely insulting film was largely ignored until months later when on September 8, it was picked up on various Arab television networks, and Islamic networks and video sites in particular. Realizing how combustible the video was, multiple Middle Eastern and Islamic nations blocked from the airwaves and the Web; Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan did all they could to prevent their citizens from viewing the inflammatory film. In Egypt, Sheikh Khalad Abdalla, a presenter on the religiously themed Al – Nas television station, began broadcasting scenes from the movie that were dubbed into Arabic. The following day, throughout the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, American Embassies became the lightning rods of violent protests.

However, although Libyans get their majority of television broadcasts through satellite dishes, there is still little evidence as to how widely viewed the video became over a three-day period. The New York Times has doubled down on their reporting and their  editorial board is now insisting that Republican Congressmen Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Mike Rogers (R-MI), both critical of Kirkpatrick’s piece, to reveal any evidence the lawmakers have that Al Qaeda was connected to the attack.

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