CAIRO, Egypt — The YouTube video about Islam's prophet Mohammed that triggered an unprecedented outbreak of anti-American protests got traction from a phone call less than two weeks ago from a controversial U.S.-based anti-Islam activist to a reporter for an Egyptian newspaper.
Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., whose anti-Islam campaigning led to the revocation of his Egyptian citizenship earlier this year, had an exclusive story for Gamel Girgis, who covers Christian emigrants for al Youm al Sabaa, the Seventh Day, a daily newspaper in the Egyptian capital. Sadek had a movie clip he wanted Girgis to see; he e-mailed him a link.
"He told me he produced a movie last year and wanted to screen it on Sept. 11th to reveal what was behind the terrorists' actions that day," Girgis said, recalling the first call, which came on Sept. 4.
Sadek, a longtime source, "considers me the boldest journalist, the only one that would publish such stories."
Sadek did not respond Saturday to requests for comment.
Two days later, Sept. 6, Girgis published a three-paragraph article, calling the movie "shocking" and warning it could fuel sectarian tensions between Egyptian Christians and Muslims. Girgis also concluded that the video "is just a passing crisis that doesn't affect the bond between Muslims and Copts."
An Islamic web forum picked up Girgis' story the next day. Girgis' newspaper also ran an interview with Wisam Abdel Warith, the head of a television station affiliated with the ultraconservative Salafist strain of Islam, who urged leaders of Egypt's Coptic community to condemn the movie.
Other newspapers started picking up the story, but it remained off the front pages, still considered a local piece about an Egyptian in America fueling a sectarian crisis here. That was the case until Sept. 8, when Khalid Abdullah, the premier commentator for al Nas, another Salafist television station, aired the clip on his show.
Abdullah's co-host, Mohammed Hamdy, noted that the Coptic Christian church had condemned the movie. He also mentioned Sadek and Florida pastor Terry Jones who, Girgis wrote, backed the movie as well. Jones' threats to burn Korans inflamed Muslims in 2010 and 2011.
That same day, the mufti of Al Azhar University condemned the clip for "insulting the prophet" and noting it was produced by "Copts living abroad."
Facebook pages started appearing, urging Islamists and youth to protest Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Jones had called for putting Mohammed on trial that day in a web message, which is why, protest organizers said, they scheduled it for that day. Calls started coming into the U.S. embassy as well, catching everyone there by surprise.
Embassy officials started calling leaders of the groups organizing the protest and told them the film does not represent how Americans see Islam. In a statement posted on the embassy's web page, they condemned the video.
But it was too late. Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the conservative Islamist Nour Party, said there was no going back.
By mid afternoon Tuesday, protesters started gathering in front of the embassy, chanting against the United States. By 5 p.m. some scaled the 12-foot wall protecting the compound, set a ladder against the flagpole and brought down the American flag.
Five hours later, in neighboring Libya, attackers launched an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens, tech officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.