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. ryantorgeson

    I'm actually happy that Fox News shut down their comment sections so that their readers are at least forces to get some facts from some place outside the bubble.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  2. sanchanim

    It was a complete lack of procedure, and proper protection that led to this. Plain and simple.
    The response from the US government prior, during, and after was pathetic.
    We will see more attacks on our embassy's and citizens in the future. The extremists are emboldened by the week response.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
    • TheonlyJGlenn

      So the response afterwards is pathetic when we already have drones, the U.S. Navy, and the Marines to look for them and protect embacies across the world better. That is a pathetic response? Please, tell me one that is better.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  3. hawaiirules

    One of the points should have been
    How and Why is Obama so clueless?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "The Lunatic Fringe"

    The POTUS sympathized with the attackers. AND "YOU" THINK THIS IS APPROPRIATE. Why don't we just send al-Queda some guns and ammo topped with some bags of Snickers bars.
    Someone asked why Mitt Romney hasn't said anything. Both Mitt Romney has said something, and Paul Ryan has weighed in on the situation. Neither one is happy about the situation and I'm not going to waste my time telling you what they said, because I am busy right now.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:19 am | Report abuse |
    • dennis0420

      It's really pathetic that the GOP minions can do at a time like this is whine about Obama. But why would I expect anything else from these people. That has been their mission since day one, why would they change now. They take their marching orders from the top, as in the chief whiner himself Willard Romney and they get it drilled into their heads by the GOP megaphone that is Fox news and AM radio. How else can you expect the drones to react?

      September 13, 2012 at 3:55 am | Report abuse |
  5. james

    all articles should be written like this. short, succinct and right to the point.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  6. Spine of Steel

    Seventh thing to know...

    Obama see what happens when you don't attend Security Briefings half the time?! See voting present as.State Senator is fine I guess, but now, occassionally, you have to put on your big boybig boy pants and lead! Time to see that Spine of Steel, Big Stick and ALL that Foreign Affairs experience you touted at the DNC. You can be the man of action, affirmative! Or do we need Jack Ryan? Personally, I want to see your college records, transcripts, loans. Bet we can gwt a swap with Romneys taxes. Be a good dear and show us that transparency you talk so much about!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Ummm

      Obama has a better attendance record at his security briefings before these attacks than Bush ever did before 9/11

      September 13, 2012 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Dejavu65

      Of course only a lunatic irrational GOP supporter will try to divide the US at a time like this and make this about Obama, this can happen at any US Consulate at any location at any time regardless of who the President is at the time!!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:38 am | Report abuse |
    • jks

      As a parent, I knew all this was going to happen. I learned that early on when I was forced to let the kids have their turn. Just keep an eye on them. For God's sake, please don't ever let them out of your site. Children have a way of screwing things up in ways you can never have imagined. So when you quip and quibble about Obama this and Obama that, just remember, you let him have his turn.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
    • anrec

      In this story, thing #1 for Americans to know – this is the consequence of solely American foreign policy. Nobody else's fault, and nobody else should be blamed except those who were leading the country's diplomacy in this direction. This is the kind of rebels that were in Benghazi rebelled against Gaddafi. These people were present in Tahrir square in Egypt. It's them as well in Syria now, whose lawful President is desperately trying to drive them away. In the Department of State, it was clear and known from day 1 of the "rebellions", who are these "rebels" and "freedom fighters".

      It's a disgrace for this country that those in charge in the Department of State cannot think of main consequences of their actions. For people leading the country who wants to call itself the world's leader this is unacceptable. Instead, some are "still are thinking how could this happen". Are they finally done thinking? And what are their thoughts on how could this happen?

      My condolences to the families of those who fell.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Joel

      Tell us more about Bush's attendance record at the security briefings!

      September 13, 2012 at 3:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. just news clean up

    why they do that to us. oh god, why. we are there to help them. we are there to help the world. we are america. we are nice people. i saw it on the tv commercial that helped a sick child. no no. not the one that we killed famillies. only the ones that we helped a sick child. oh god. how could someone even think about attacking these americans. oh boohoo oh boohoo oh boohoo. wwwwwhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyy. aaaaaaaaaaaaah

    September 13, 2012 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
  8. jks

    If this is how communities are organized, then I don't want any part of it.
    Those poor people will die in vain as Obama and his excuse engine rev up to max rpm.
    The spin will be flinging crap in every direction.
    But some how, he'll wiggle his way out of responsability. Slime always does.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. Chris Schnedler

    Can we just commence with the carpet bombing already....wait...that's not how its done now.....can we commence dropping "smart" bombs down vent shafts already.....100,000 lives for one should be the minimum.....that is the way the enemy sees it....so lets "play by their rules"......

    September 13, 2012 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
    • James Alexander

      Al Qaeda, CIA-asset, kills the ambassador and now we have drones flying over Libya.

      The PLAN is, of course, further aggression in the middle East.

      Ambassador Stevens, a sacrifice.

      Al Qaeda CANNOT be both:

      1) A U.S. bogeyman to coerce us into giving up our Rights.

      2) A CIA-asset that the CFR says we need to help destabilize Syria.

      Al Qaeda works for US. If Al Qaeda attacks somewhere, it is because it aids in achieving some U.S. governmental objective...of that we can be sure.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:21 am | Report abuse |
  10. Derp

    This has al queda written all over it. And yeah, glad Obama is at the helm. Remember, it was under his watch that we ended a war that had nothing to do with 9/11, re-focused and killed Osama Bin Laden. I like that track record.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Macpappy

      Obama stationed this man in the office, then knowing they were under seige, he goes to bed. There is no one at the helm. His track record is on the golf course.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bart

    One thing everyone knows, Obama is an idiot. Mister Affirmative Action is just not up to the task of being president.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:19 am | Report abuse |
    • ED

      100% GOD honest truth!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Macpappy

      actually, he is pro muslim brotherhood, racist, and not nearly as intelligent as this news outlet and MSNBC would have us think. These news outlets days are numbered now that Glenn Beck has his own Dish Network channel. 24/7 Glenn Beck with the truth that they can't handle.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
    • CTYank

      Everyone? No.

      Seems you're an idiot, sonny.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
    • amarie

      Say "Ed and Bart," I am guessing your pseudonyms are "Beavis and Butthead."

      September 13, 2012 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
    • TheonlyJGlenn

      Sometimes you conservative idiots just say things that go to far. Mister affirmative action? Did you think before you typed it? I don't think so. Then someone says he is part of a muslim brotherhood and racist? Seems like you two are racist. Saying he is promuslim brotherhood because his name is Barack? Same thing as always. You are the racist idiots.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  12. wideNCawake

    make movies not war

    September 13, 2012 at 5:26 am | Report abuse |
  13. ug

    If they are sorry...it would not have happened...

    September 13, 2012 at 7:03 am | Report abuse |
  14. John DeFelice

    This movie had T-Bagger ideology written all over it, released to coincide with Romney's drastic beating in the polls. And there he was ...smirking at press conference where he practically celebrated the death of our ambassador so he could bash our President. Yes Mr. right winger. Obama is at the helm. Thank God!

    September 13, 2012 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Mama Mitzi

      Get your facts straight. The movie has been out since June.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • mj

      Yeah, let's just incite more division and hatred John. – You don't know squat about Tea Party. Why don't you GO to one with an open mind and educate yourself.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Macpappy

      I have found that people that use the term "teabagger" are usually people that have been teabagged. As only those people know what it means. Your statement is ignorant of who, when and how this movie was done. The fault is that of the ignorant masses that make up the cult Islam.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      Actually, it is the Obama defenders who say nothing about Ambassador Stevens and the other American victims. Foreign service officers are heroes serving our country just as valiantly as soldiers or marines. This man should be mourned as the national martyr he is. You people should be ashamed. Our president and his secretary of state should be ashamed.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Mae White

      Glad Obama is at the helm?

      Why what's he going to do, invite al Quaida to JayZ's fundraiser??

      September 23, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bradley

    What incompetence on the part of US diplomatic security. Are these the special services Yahoos?

    September 13, 2012 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • TheonlyJGlenn

      Do you know who is in charge of protecting U.S. embacies across the world? I guess not. You just disrespected the men and women of our armed services. They are the United States Marine Corps.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
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