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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Protests and Provocations

If it wasn’t obvious before, in light of last night’s assault on the US embassy in Yemen, it should be painfully evident that the 9/11&12 Middle East protests against the anti-Islam movie “The Innocence of Muslims” aren’t really protests, and they don’t really have a whole lot to do with the movie either (which may not even exist).

When the 9/11 protest in Cairo began, multiple witnesses reported that much of the crowd didn’t even know why they were there, and the first part of the protest largely involved people milling about as the reasons for the gathering was explained to them. They were told to show up, and they did – who told them to show up? (Some other important questions about the Cairo incident here)

I’ll get to that shortly.

The protesters were there was for one reason and one reason alone: to provoke a violent reaction by the guards protecting the embassy in order to generate backlash. If the protests at the embassy had turned into a sort of Kent State in Cairo, as I suspect they were supposed to, the attack on the Consulate in Benghazi would have seemed far more believable as a genuine protest gone wrong, and we would be facing the possibility of real grassroots protests across the Middle East.

The heroes of the day in Cairo were the on-site US Embassy guards, and their superiors who refused to fall victim to the provocation, and chose not to use force in an ambiguous and possibly threatening situation.
In Libya, however, the situation was substantially different. The incident at the Consulate in Libya was a preplanned assault on a predetermined target. Four pickup trucks full of armed men used grenades and RPGs to attack the Consulate compound in the middle of a rather small and unremarkable protest.

The debate, at this point, is whether there was coordination between the organizers of the protests in Cairo, and the attack in Benghazi. With the assault on the Yemeni embassy, the plot thickens.
Frankly, I’d be shocked if more than a few of the people at the embassy in Yemeni had any idea about the film. Like the protesters in Egypt, the film was really irrelevant – they were there at someone’s behest to provoke a reaction.

I suspect that what we’re seeing is a new approach to operations by Al Qaeda franchisees and affiliates.
In the absence of a central command, and with the loss of most of their senior planning staff, Al Qaeda can’t really pull off the large-scale operations that they used to be known for.  Instead, they are now engaged in the work of trying to rebuild some measure of unity and support in the Muslim world. Their goal here is to provoke some sort of high-profile disproportionate response by the US.

These events, coming on the heels of the release of the Weinstein video and the Zawahiri video, point to a much looser approach to AQ operations that are vaguely synchronized, but not really coordinated. (See also the attack in Somalia) This approach may be marginally successful in the short run, but it needs to produce major results ASAP, because it involves lots of groups committing to public action in a way that makes them easy targets for some very skilled and dangerous people.