Mideast Unrest

How Petty Criminal Nakoula Bassely Nakoula Sparked a Mideast Meltdown

Meth cooker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s low-budget anti-Muslim movie prompted anti-American protests in the Mideast, but the unrest is also fueled by regional politics, says Christopher Dickey.

AFP / Getty Images

The hunt for the killers of the United States ambassador and three other Americans in Libya is narrowing, even as the protests and unrest that set the scene for the murder grow wider. Friday prayers throughout the Muslim world will offer a massive platform for public rage. The Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates Egypt’s government, is calling for a million people to demonstrate in Cairo.

Libya’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur said Thursday that suspects had been arrested and “a big advance had been made” in the search for those who attacked the United States consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday. Ambassador Chris Stevens and a second diplomat were killed in the fiery chaos at the compound. The two others who died were a former U.S. Navy SEAL reportedly working as a contractor trying to round up MANPAD anti-aircraft rockets in the hands of Libyan militias and radicals, and an active duty SEAL sent in on the rescue mission to the Benghazi “safe house” where three dozen staffers had fled for shelter.

“We have some names and some photographs,” Abu Shagur told Agence France Presse. “Arrests have been made and more are under way as we speak.” He did not name any specific group, saying he would wait for all the facts to come in. But members of a shadowy jihadist organization sympathetic to al Qaeda, Ansar al Sharia, are known to have participated in the rioting at the consulate.

All this is taking place against a backdrop of anti-American protests suddenly erupting all over the Muslim world: most seriously in Egypt and Yemen, where parts of the U.S. embassy complexes were occupied temporarily; but also in Tunisia, Gaza, Iran, and Iraq, which Washington spent hundreds of billions of dollars—and thousands of lives—liberating, occupying, and attempting to rebuild.

The proximate cause for the protests was a film crudely produced last year in California, then excerpted and translated into Arabic on YouTube at the beginning of this month, just in time for the unrest to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The shady and evasive producers, according to several reports, were Coptic Christians living in the United States whose aim is to show Islam as a violent and hypocritical religion. The alleged director, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is a Coptic Christian who earlier had claimed to be an Israeli Jew. He has a rap sheet in California that includes jail time for narcotics-related offenses and fraud.

By portraying the prophet Muhammad as a bloodthirsty sexual deviant, the filmmakers set out to offend and humiliate Muslims as much as possible, and that much they accomplished. But once begun, the ongoing protests have been fueled as much by politics in each country as by religious fury. Jihadist radicals stoking the anger of the crowds want to expose their governments—especially the fledgling democracies—as weak and ineffective.

In Egypt, where newly installed President Mohammed Morsi comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, the government is being challenged by more extreme Salafists who hope to show it is already too close to the Americans and too cooperative with them.

With massive unemployment, especially among the young, it’s easy to draw big crowds, and in the first day of demonstrations Wednesday, the Egyptian “ultras,” who run riot at soccer games, led the charge scaling the walls of the U.S. embassy compound. Protesters tore down the American flag, which remained and the flagpole was bare Thursday night, the street barricaded by police. A banner was hung above the entrance to the embassy: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet,” it said. The words “United” and “America” had been scrubbed from the top of the entrance to the embassy, and “Bin Laden” scrawled in graffiti alongside it.

In Yemen, where the United States helped facilitate the exit of the old regime and get a new one voted in, the key American objective is to attack the most virulent strain of al Qaeda still in existence. Just before the protests began, American authorities confirmed they’d killed yet another senior al Qaeda commander there in an airstrike. Jihadist revenge might be one reason the embassy in Sana came under attack Thursday. But Yemenis came up with other explanations as well, especially since the security forces put up little or no resistance.

Abdullah Abu Al-Ghaith, a professor of political science at the University of Sana’a, told The Daily Beast he thought the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still has many connections in the police, planned the attack to humiliate his successor, Abd Rabo Mansour, before Mansour meets with Obama in the United States later this month. “Saleh wanted to disgrace [Mansour] in front of the United States,” said Abu Al-Ghaith.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, which held American diplomats hostage from 1979 to 1981, regularly denounces the United States as “the Great Satan,” and anti-American demonstrations are a commonplace. But Tehran’s backing of the Assad regime in Syria has put it on the wrong side of most Arab and Muslim public opinion. International sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program are crippling its economy. So the regime is exploiting the anger created by the film as much as possible.

Massoud Dehnamaki, a former leader of the extremist Ansar Hezbollah in the 1990s and now a pro-regime filmmaker, told The Daily Beast that for the United States government to prove it wasn’t behind the film, the U.S. must prosecute the individuals responsible. “What is certain is that Westerners see their own freedom in the ability to insult others. They see freedom as a one-way freeway that moves in the direction of their demands. They don’t respect other people’s beliefs,” he said.

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The unrest has shown the foundations of U.S. policy in the Middle East to be very shaky indeed. For decades Washington sought stability by relying on supposedly friendly dictatorships like those in Tunisia and Egypt and, to some extent, on predictable enemies like the Assads in Syria. Beginning in December 2010, the Arab uprisings swept many of those tyrants from power. Since then, Washington has found it has little ability to influence the new governments—or the chaos—that replaced them. President Obama said Wednesday night that Egypt, for decades Washington’s strongest partner in the Middle East, and the recipient of more than a billion dollars a year in U.S. assistance, could no longer be considered “an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy”—a comment that the administration later backed down from somewhat.

Gehad El Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said the party understood the sensitive context surrounding Obama’s remarks and hoped that it was “not a change of policy.”

"Let’s not lose the dialogue of trust that we’ve worked so hard to build over the last two years,” he said.

As to what America could do to address the crisis, he admitted there was not much more it could do, saying of statements—from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday, and from the embassy initially, “That was the action we hoped for,” he said. “The only thing they can do now is keep the dialogue open.

If there are indeed important breaks in the investigation of the Benghazi murders, the revelations could help focus American and international attention on a handful of criminals rather than the masses of protesters.

From the moment Obama first spoke out about the murder of Stevens and the others, he vowed the United States would work with the Libyan government “to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” Since then, both Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder have struck the same note. And the repositioning of American warships, along with the dispatch of a small Marine contingent to Libya, suggests that if local authorities cannot do the job in a country where law and order are both in short supply, then U.S. forces might find ways to deliver justice themselves. That has been the approach taken hunting down al Qaeda leaders in the wilds of Pakistan and Yemen, where the No. 2 leader of the organization in the Arabian Peninsula was reported killed earlier in the week.

A trial or a hit that terminates the Libya murderers won’t solve all the problems of the Middle East, certainly, but it would reap a political benefit. True crime—and punishment—is a simple and compelling narrative, easy for American voters to follow, unlike the morass of internecine rivalries, plots and counterplots that mark the protests and politics of the new Middle East.

Reporting contributed by Ali Saeed, Vivian Salama, Omid Memarian, and Mike Giglio.