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.