Blowback in Benghazi?

Or was it something worse?

by , September 14, 2012

The murder of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other US diplomats at the hands of rioters probably wasn’t just another case of Islamists-gone-wild. The circumstances surrounding this horrific incident — the riot was in reaction to a “film” supposedly made by a mysterious Israeli-American director under what is probably a pseudonym — point to a carefully staged and well-thought out event. The question is: staged by whom?

Let’s take a look at the film itself, entitled Innocence of Muslims. Media accounts of the movie’s content universally describe it as “crude,” “insulting,” “amateurish” — in short, not exactly a candidate for the Academy Awards. Yet this fails to really capture the spirit of the film, which can only be described as leering: there is an exhibitionistic quality to the “script,” which dwells on matters sexual. The movie, which claims to portray the life and times of the prophet Mohammed, consists of a series of sexualized vignettes interspersed with scenes of violence. News accounts refer to the “wooden” acting, and I think this is literally true: the actors come off like puppets in a Punch & Judy show. There is the same slapstick quality to their actions and particularly the bantering that passes for dialogue. It’s all centered on sex — Mohammed’s alleged pedophilia, how he and his followers raped the villages they conquered, and naturally accusations of homosexuality loom large.

My favorite scene is when two of Mohammed’s followers are having a conversation about “did you know Mohammed is gay?” “Well, I knew about” Mohammed’s alleged sex partner, “but Mohammed? Is he submissive or the dominant one?” Mohammed, who has been sitting there listening to the conversation, leans over and says: “Both!”

Innocence of Muslims is the Grand Guignol of the Islamophobes: viewing it is like reading the comments section of Pam Geller’s blog, or Robert Spencer’s JihadWatch. On a somewhat higher level, the excerpts we have seen resemble nothing so much as a dramatization of the “theories” of one Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who averred in his 1973 book, The Arab Mind, that Arabs are peculiarly susceptible to sexual humiliation. As Seymour Hersh put it in his 2004 investigation into the horrors of Abu Ghraib:

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was The Arab Mind, a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. ‘The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,’ Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, ‘or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.’ The Patai book, an academic told me, was ‘the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.’ In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged —‘one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.’”

Shame and humiliation — followed by murderous rage. Precisely the reaction that greeted the posting of Innocence of Muslims online and led to the deaths of four Americans, and the first such incident involving an American ambassador in quite some time. If someone was deliberately setting a fire in the Middle East, this was the fuel that would burn hottest.

In her response to the attacks, Hillary Clinton was clear that this had nothing to do with the Libyan government “or the Libyan people.” How did she know that so soon after the event — before even a preliminary investigation had been launched? Which is to say she didn’t know, but was merely hoping.

Yet there is evidence of official complicity, at least at some level. When the consulate initially came under attack, the Ambassador and key personnel were moved to another building: when the rioters broke in, they found the place empty. However, the Libyan “security” team assigned to guard the compound helpfully pointed out where the Americans were located: presumably they did this in the process of fleeing. Whether they did it to save their own lives, or out of sympathy for the rioters, is an open question.

The timing is significant. The United States is currently in the midst of a perilous maneuver: in an attempt to forestall an anticipated wave of radical Islamist upsurges on traditionally pro-American turf, Washington has launched a pro-Sunni pro-“democracy” turn in the Middle East. The idea is to co-opt the “Arab Spring,” and use its energy to install moderate and pro-Western regimes on the Turkish model. After the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the new strategy went into high gear with the Libyan intervention.

Initially hailed as a great triumph of Obamaite diplomacy and resolve, the Libyan “revolution” — managed in part by the departed Ambassador Stevens — subsumed radical elements under its broad tent. As critics of the US role pointed out at the time, these elements dominated the military wing of the “transitional” governing council, which was populated with Western-educated liberals who had no guns to back them up.

The NATO-backed rebels took power and soon became the launching pad for Washington’s next regime-change project: the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party. Libyan fighters were soon shooting up the streets of Damascus, and enjoying the hospitality of their Turkish allies just over the border. So far, so good — until the Benghazi collision with reality.

That the alliance with Islamists has come back to bite the Americans in the tail is hardly surprising. The warlords of Washington have been playing with fire in their Middle Eastern intrigues, and they have been badly burned. But who, if I may ask, set the fire?

Which brings us back to Innocence of Muslims and its mysterious creators — because one person didn’t finance, film, and organize this little operation. It took a lot of forethought, first of all, to effectively mask the true creators of this enterprise: apparently the alleged “director,” one “Sam Bacile,” has been operating under a pseudonym from the beginning of his film project.

A preview attended by less than a dozen people took place in Southern California, and sources at the down-and-out dive where the event took place describe a man named Sam who delivered the film to the theater. A man purporting to be Bacile spoke to the Associated Press, and in the interview described himself as a 56 year old “Israeli-American” who worked as a real estate developer in California. No record of Bacile exists in California’s real estate database, and the Israelis say they have no record of his citizenship — presumably dual citizenship.

Upon the release of this interview, an immediate effort to debunk the alleged Israeli connection was launched, with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic citing the loony leader of the group that promoted the film as saying Bacile isn’t Israeli and is “probably” evangelical. Laura Rozen found suspicious Bacile’s claim he’d raised the money for his directorial debut from “100 Jews.” What Jew, she wonders, would say that — and why precisely one-hundred? Yet the claim was “over 100,” and people say a lot of things, which may or may not be true.

Bacile’s cell phone number was given to AP by one Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian activist, and was subsequently traced to an address on the outskirts of Los Angeles: the residence of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Coptic Christian convicted of bank fraud and identity theft in 2010. Although Nakoula stoutly denies being “Sam Bacile,” the similarity to some of his many aliases is more than a little suspicious. Yet he told the Telegraph:

“I didn’t know this movie, I didn’t work on it, I know nothing about it. They need to blame someone. I’m a gas station worker, how can I have made a five million dollar movie? I didn’t know anything about the movie. Now the FBI are having to come to protect me.”

Nakoula’s contention that he doesn’t “know this movie” should surely be taken with a very large grain of salt. As the Telegraph reports:

His protestations were undermined by the fact that his front door, and a chandelier visible just inside, looked very similar to those featured in a scene from ‘Innocence of Muslims.’ One of the actors in the film also bore a strong resemblance to a young man seen at the house.”

Yet none of this proves Nakoula is the creator and prime mover behind this cinematic provocation. The cell phone “Sam” used is associated with Nakoula’s address, but this is hardly definitive, especially given the lengths to which “Sam” went to remain anonymous. Nakoula undoubtedly had something to do with Innocence of Muslims, but whether he was the central player, a mere collaborator, or a cut out — a false flag planted to divert attention away from the real authors — remains to be seen. He had collaborators. Who are they?

A gas station worker is a far cry from a real estate developer, and Nakoula asks a good question: how could someone who just got out of jail and is presumably paying restitution afford to finance a movie? Although the $5 million claim is dubious, given the quality of the product, a substantial sum was required to put the film together. The original title was “Desert Warrior,” according to the casting call — issued by a company headed up by another variation of the “Bacile” pseudonym — and the script had nothing to do with Mohammed. Instead, the actors were told it was to be a movie about life in the region 2,000 years ago. The offensive lines were dubbed in. All in all, a fairly complex operation involving deception, extreme discretion, and readily available cash — the actors were paid in $20 bills out of “Sam’s” pocket. It took money, organization, and timing: the trailer was released on YouTube the day before 9/11, an anniversary fraught with the potential for violence. Shortly after its release, it was given Arabic titles and a translated version posted on YouTube — although “Bacile” claims he doesn’t know who did that.

The key question to ask about this incident, and the motives of the film’s makers, is this: what did it accomplish? The answer is that it drove a wedge between Washington and its newfound Islamist allies, specifically the governments of Libya and Egypt. That’s why Hillary was so quick to absolve Tripoli of any responsibility: but her mere assertion cannot hide the reality of the split, which is sure to widen.

Who would want to undermine Washington’s tilt toward the Islamists, however “moderate”? In what country — aside from the Land of the Neocons — are the Patai-like views dramatized in Innocence commonly held? Which of our vaunted allies is all but openly rooting for Romney, and would have cause to rejoice in what has got to be the low point of Obama’s presidency, at least in foreign policy terms?

The ingredients were all there: a volatile country, Libya, with well-armed radical Islamists running loose, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and a history of provocations aimed at Muslims specifically defaming and ridiculing the prophet Mohammed. All that was needed to produce outbreaks of violent rage was the right provocation.

“Shame and humiliation” — it works every time.

There are several competing theories about who or what’s behind the Innocence imbroglio. Rachel Maddow floated what looks to be the Obama administration’s take: the whole thing was an al-Qaeda plot, timed specifically to avenge the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Libyan al-Qaeda leader who was second in command of the group since Osama bin Laden’s death and Zawahiri’s rise to the top leadership position. She pointed to a number of factors that make this credible: a video released on the eve of 9/11, valorizing al-Libi’s memory and calling for retribution for his death in a US drone strike. The video showed explosions in the area of the consulate specifically. Yet this proves nothing but that al Qaeda has an active fan club in the area. The big problem with Maddow’s theory is that if al Qaeda was behind the whole thing they surely would’ve taken credit for it by now: they aren’t shy about such things.

The Obamaites have every reason to treat this as another al Qaeda plot, if only because the alternatives — including the utter failure and complete collapse of our pro-Sunni “turn” — are unmentionable. With two warships headed for the Libyan coast, a contingent of Marines to beef up embassy security, and a fleet of drones flying overhead supposedly seeking out the culprits, we have to invent a complicated terrorist plot to justify our actions. The funny thing is, it could all boil down to nothing more than the antics of a bunch of Southern California right-wing lunatics having their idea of fun with YouTube — a lark that ended in tragedy.

Read more by Justin Raimondo