Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
September 12th, 2012
10:16 PM ET

Six things to know about attack that killed Ambassador Stevens

Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, were killed Tuesday as gunmen set fire to and fought security forces at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The attack came as protesters outside the compound rallied against a movie that unflatteringly portrays Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. U.S. sources are giving conflicting accounts about whether the attack was planned before the protest and whether the attackers used the protest as a diversion.

If you’re new to the story and need to catch up, here are six key things to know about the incident.

1) What happened?

On Tuesday night, protesters were outside the consulate in Benghazi, demonstrating against the video "Innocence of Muslims," which reportedly was made in California by a producer whose identity is unclear.

Eventually, a group of heavily armed militants "infiltrated the march to start chaos," according to Libyan Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif.

Initial reports indicate the four-hour assault began around 10 p.m. as attackers pelted the U.S. Consulate complex's main compound with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades . Within 15 minutes, the gunmen entered the building.

Four hours of fire and chaos: How the attack unfolded

The attackers set the consulate ablaze - it's not clear how, though one senior U.S. official said a rocket-propelled grenade started the fire. American and Libyan security personnel tried to fight the attackers and the fire.

As the fire spread, three people Stevens, Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith and a U.S. regional security officer were in a safe room, senior State Department officials said.

The three tried to leave when smoke filled the safe room. After the security officer escaped the building, he returned with others to try to rescue Stevens and Smith. Smith was found dead, apparently of smoke inhalation, officials said.

Stevens was missing. Libyans later said that bystanders found an unconscious Stevens and took him to a hospital, though U.S. officials could not confirm that account. His body was handed over to Americans at an airport; it’s not clear how he died.

Ex-SEALs, online gaming maven among Benghazi dead

Two other Americans, whose names haven’t been released, were killed and two others were wounded during a gunbattle between security forces and militants at the complex, a senior administration official said.

2) Who did it, and why?

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Wednesday: “At this stage it would be premature to ascribe any motive to this reprehensible act.”

But sources tracking militant Islamist groups in eastern Libya say a pro-al Qaeda group responsible for a previous armed assault on the Benghazi consulate is the chief suspect.

They also note that the attack immediately followed a call from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for revenge for the death in June of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior Libyan member of al Qaeda.

U.S. sources also have said they believed the attack was planned and used the protest as a diversion, though the sources could not say whether the attackers instigated the protest or merely took advantage of it.

A London think tank with strong ties to Libya was among those to speculate Wednesday that the attackers "came to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi."

It was "the work of roughly 20 militants, prepared for a military assault," the think tank Quilliam said, noting that there were no other protests against the film elsewhere in Libya.

“Jihadists will want the world to believe that the attack is just a part of the protests against an amateur film produced in the U.S., which includes crude insults regarding the Prophet Mohammed. They will want the world to think that their actions represent a popular Libyan and wider Muslim reaction; thus, reversing the perception of jihadists being outcasts from their own societies,” Quilliam president Norman Benotman said.

The significance of the timing of the attack, which fell on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, is unclear.

3) What is this movie that people were protesting?

Again, it’s not clear whether the attack stemmed directly from outrage over the movie. But protesters outside the consulate did demonstrate against “Innocence of Muslims” before the attack, as did demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, 700 miles to the east of Benghazi.

An online trailer for the movie depicts Islam as a fraudulent religion bent on getting rid of nonbelievers. Cartoonish scenes show Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester and ruthless killer.

But the film’s actors and crew members released a statement Wednesday saying they were “grossly misled” about the filmmaker’s intent. An actress in the film who asked not to be identified said the original script did not include a Prophet Mohammed character, and that the actors’ lines had been changed post-production.

A casting call published in July 2011 in publications for actors identifies the working title of the movie as "Desert Warrior" and describes it as a "historical Arabian Desert adventure film."

The Wall Street Journal identified the filmmaker as Sam Bacile. The Journal reported that, in its telephone interview with Bacile, he characterized his film as "a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam."

But CNN has not been able to contact him, and a search of public records on Sam Bacile came up empty. Casting further doubt on the filmmaker's identity, The Atlantic quoted a consultant of the filmmaker’s as saying Sam Bacile is a pseudonym and said "he did not know Bacile's real name."

Reaction to anti-Islam film fuels debate on free speech versus hate speech

News of the video, posted in July on YouTube, spread as Egyptian television recently aired segments and anti-Islam activists, including Egyptian-born Coptic Christian Morris Sadek, promoted it online.

Many Muslims find any depiction of Mohammed to be offensive  – a Danish newspaper's publication in 2005 of Mohammed caricatures triggered riots - and derogatory depictions of the prophet are considered by some to be worse.

4) What will the United States do about the attack?

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States "will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act and make no mistake, justice will be done."

A senior U.S. official told CNN that American surveillance drones are expected to join the hunt for jihadists who may be tied to the attack. The drones are expected to gather intelligence that will be turned over to Libyan officials for strikes, the official said.

A senior defense official said the drones would be part of "a stepped-up, more focused search" for a particular insurgent cell that may have been behind the killings.

In June, a senior Libyan official told CNN that U.S. controllers were already flying the unmanned craft over suspected jihadist training camps in eastern Libya because of concerns about rising activity by al Qaeda and like-minded groups in the region.

Two U.S. Navy destroyers  the USS Laboon and the USS McFaul are moving toward the coast of Libya, two U.S. officials told CNN. Both ships are equipped with tomahawk missiles that could be used if a strike was ordered.

About 50 U.S. Marines are headed to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after the attack to beef up security in response to the attack, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The unit is specially trained to retake or guard diplomatic installations and other U.S. facilities in troubled regions.

The United States said it also would increase security at its embassies around the world.

5) How has the Libyan government reacted?

Libya's leaders apologized for the attack. Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib called it a "cowardly, criminal act."

U.S. and NATO warplanes helped a Benghazi-based rebellion drive on Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi last year. Gadhafi was overthrown.

The militants suspected in Tuesday night's attack "are a very small minority" who are taking advantage of a fledgling democracy, Ali Suleiman Aujali, the Libyan ambassador the United States, told CNN's "Amanpour." "The good thing about this is the majority - 95, 98% of the Libyan people care not for this," he said.

6) Who was Stevens?

Stevens served in several posts for the U.S. Foreign Service in the Middle East and North Africa before being named U.S. ambassador to Libya in May.

He was involved with Libya for several years, serving as the U.S. deputy chief of mission from 2007 to 2009. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent him to Benghazi to be an envoy to the rebels during the revolt against Gadhafi.

Stevens graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982, then took a pause in his studies to join the Peace Corps, according to his State Department biography.

"Growing up in California, I didn't know much about the Arab world," he said in a State Department video prepared to introduce him to the Libyan people after his appointment as ambassador in May.

Slain ambassador warned in '08 about extremists near Benghazi

"I worked as an English teacher in a town in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco for two years, and quickly grew to love this part of the world," he said.

– CNN's Suzanne Kelly, Sarah Aarthun, Michael Pearson, Moni Basu, Tom Watkins, Barabara Starr, Chris Lawrence, Jomana Karadsheh, Elise Labott, Nic Robertson, Jill Dougherty, Tom Cohen and Carol Cratty contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Libya
soundoff (680 Responses)
  1. tuscany590

    1. (4) Americans were assassinated by Al Queda
    2. Security was lax even though there was advance warning.
    3. Hillary lied
    4. Obama lied
    5. Rice lied
    6 Carney lied

    September 21, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • coastalsurfer20

      Sec of State Clinton's conference call today (which purposely omitted Fox News btw) clearly illustrated that they wanted to be first to avoid any blame associated with the Libyan attack on 9/11- Clinton runs counter to Sec of State Rice, who would err on the side of caution regarding protecting US government personnel around the world. When will the Obama Administration take responsibility for this Libyan attack? Answer: certainly not before the November election!

      October 10, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Richard Mather

    I would like the background and some biography on Anva DAMEN . Thanks . Richard Mather

    September 22, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
  3. Logic detector

    This "report" purported to be "what we know" should be used in Journalism classes as why American journalism has become a national embarrassment. You can't even count the factual errors contacted within. Does reporting early on breaking news stories free the press of any responsibility of writing truthful accounts to the American public? If so, I'd rather wait then be lied to. Baghdad Bob must have been the professor at the journalism school these authors attended. So many "contributing" authors to this worthless accounting of what REALLY happened. As one said about journalists, most people learn to write in 6th grade and then go on to something else. The contributors of this trash should start looking.

    September 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mae White

    I am not sure why CNN is not reporting that the independent Lebanese news outlets reported that Christopher Stevens was sodomiized before being kliled; this was picked up by the Washington Times, then later censored.

    Anybody protecting someone in our administration perhaps?

    September 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Albert Root

      Most likely because a family's grieving and common decency would have more respect than to broadcast it. I think it would supersede even our morbid curiosity and selfish need to know such things. Good call to let the man rest in peace and spare his family any more harm than they already have been through with the ultimate cost they have paid already in service to our country.

      October 29, 2012 at 3:58 am | Report abuse |
  5. sue thompson

    suetx CNN i was beginig to think i might be able to turn to you for more balanced news I do like to get another point of view as you should.CNN has had Chris Stevens diary for 9 days with him stateing that was worried about security and the fact he was on Al Queda hit list Anderson Cooper reported Sat. but after the White House Mafia threats you cave.CNN will lie to the American people to put Obama back in the Oval Office what then is he going to be a better President the 2nd term he will do anything to get relected and now so will you All day i have been waiting on a report CNN and as my Hope is gone i Change the channel again worried about the future and try to prepare myself for a 2012 Obama

    September 24, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • sasha

      i agree..its why i watch fox

      November 25, 2012 at 6:52 am | Report abuse |
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    September 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. vicjr

    It was all caused by protests about some video?

    Now we know...The State Department verified last night (8.9.12) that there were NO PROTESTS BEFORE THE ATTACKS on the embassy that night. I am looking for that report from CNN. Just watched the news this AM and they made no mention of these reports so far.

    October 10, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  8. Faival

    Give up on the movie being a cause of the attack - that has been completely discredited. And you're not sure if there was any connection to 9/11, just because this attack came on the same day, you (CNN) are not able to understand night from day, and are unfit to comment on anything. Oh, and by the way, Mohammad WAS a womanizer, child molester and ruthless killer, just like the movie implied. Today we would call him a sociopath, heading up a cult that empowers sociopaths.

    October 10, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • sasha

      yes and so this says alot for those who follow this sick, possessed freak

      November 25, 2012 at 6:54 am | Report abuse |
  9. Alan Beasley

    Now we know that there was NO PROTEST IN BENGHAZI – NONE, NADA, ZILCH!
    This article is as helpful as one claiming the earth is flat...

    October 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
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