WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Although U.S. authorities believe anti-American violence that erupted on Tuesday in Libya and Egypt was triggered by an Arabic talk-show broadcast three days earlier, U.S. officials said high-alert warnings were not issued to American outposts in the region about the possibility of unrest.
An Egyptian TV network, al-Nas, broadcast on 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 called “Innocence of Muslims,” which portrays the Prophet, played by what appears to be a young American actor, as a womanizer, thug and child molester.
While U.S. government officials were aware of the film’s inflammatory content, three officials said the broadcasts did not prompt strong warnings from intelligence agencies or the State Department of possible threats to U.S. diplomatic missions in the Islamic world.
Four U.S. diplomats, including the ambassador, were killed in an attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday that U.S. officials said may have been planned by one or more militant factions.
One official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said at least one specific warning about possible unrest in the region was circulated within the government, but was not so alarming as to lead to a major upgrade in emergency security precautions.
The lack of major warnings appears to illustrate how, in today’s world of globalized social media, threats to U.S. interests can gather strength rapidly and seem to appear out of nowhere. The events also underline the role of the Middle East’s more freewheeling media, loosened from state restrictions after the fall of longtime dictators.
“The number of potentially inflammatory things that are said or broadcast every week (is so large) ... that warning about all of them would be useless,” said Paul Pillar, former top U.S. intelligence analyst for the Middle East and South Asia. It was “impossible to predict” the kind of violent reaction that occurred in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.
One U.S. official said, “You can’t freak out on everything that’s broadcast.”
That official and others said the airwaves and Internet were filled with hateful material and U.S. authorities could be “crying wolf” if they issued a warning every time an anti-Islamic broadside was aired or posted online.
A senior congressional official said the question of what the United States knew about pre-September 11, 2012, threats and what it did about them would likely be examined in legislative inquiries into the Libyan and Egyptian violence.
Another aide indicated it would be difficult to fault U.S. agencies on the issue.
U.S. facilities in the Middle East were already on heightened alert earlier this week due to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
The FBI has opened an investigation into the killings in Benghazi. U.S. officials said Attorney General Eric Holder was cutting short a foreign trip and would return to Washington on Friday to manage the Libya investigation.
It is not clear that anyone involved in making the anti-Islam film faces criminal investigation in the United States.
“Making a bad movie is not a crime,” one official said, referring to the film’s low production values.
Al-Nas is an Egyptian Islamic satellite channel whose programming ranges from Islamic scholars delivering religious edicts to shows about cooking and medicine.
Before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, authorities periodically suspended privately owned religious satellite channels such as al-Nas, many of which follow conservative Salafi Islam, for allegedly violating broadcasting licenses by promoting religious or sectarian hatred and providing dubious medical advice.
U.S. officials believe that al-Nas’ Saturday broadcast of a talk show hosted by Sheikh Khalid Abdallah was the spark that triggered violence and protests against U.S. missions in a half-dozen Arab cities.
Egyptian political scientist Omar Ashour said Abdallah was a controversial Islamist host of a TV show that specialized in criticizing liberals, often inviting firebrand commentators to mock secular Egyptians. His show tends to be popular with Salafi Muslims, but not with followers of the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood that dominates Egypt’s government.
A European security official said intelligence reporting indicated the inflammatory clips from the American film run on the talk show had been translated and dubbed into Arabic by Copts, possibly members of the sect living in the United States.
In their commentary on the film clips, the hosts of al-Nas’ program alleged the material had been uploaded by “migrant Coptics,” according to Flashpoint Global Partners, a firm that monitors militant websites for government and private clients.
According to Flashpoint’s translation, the al-Nas presenters at one point in their introduction to the anti-Mohammad film, specifically mentioned “radical pastor Terry Jones,” the Florida preacher who staged a number of anti-Islamic events over the past year. Jones has confirmed he was involved in promoting the film.
Additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington, Marwa Awad in Cairo and William Maclean in London. Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney