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. J hickey

    We need to either bomb the hell out of these peoplee to show them we won't put up with their stupidity, or get out and let them kill each other. obama is a sympathazer of the muslims and "obama we do not sopportthe muslims like you think". this president has done nothing bot put ur services in the line of fire to kill off as many americans as he can. he is a muslim. we need to fight obama as much as we can. THANK GOD FOR THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
    • SuzieQ

      Amen to you!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
    • CTYank

      Thank God for education! You'd benefit from some.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • slupdawg

      I'm exercising my freedom of speech and calling you out as an i d i o t

      September 13, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  2. David Glicken

    Excellent article & analysis!

    September 13, 2012 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  3. TMoney

    Clinton did nothing? Read the December 8th, 1998 issue of Time magazine. There's an entire spread on the hunt for bin Laden. Don't make comments you aren't educated enough to make.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin

    Muammar Gaddafi is laughing now.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
  5. ED

    Al Queda's new leader-Obama!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  6. Andrew

    Congrats to Google for inciting a riot in the name of Internet equality. Google provided the blog for the Coptic blogger in Egypt to sound the alarm about this low budget 13 minute short filmed mostly on a green screen in the Valley and Google hosted and continues to host the video online in the name of Internet equality.

    Google claims the video fall within their guidelines for video uploads but that is not true since their guidelines are supposedly ruled by the YouTube community and so far based on the large number of dislikes the video is offensive. Google will delete a video that depicts two men kissing passionately and claim the video violates their community guidelines.

    Why does Google insist on keeping the clearly offensive video online especially after they blocked the video in Egypt? Also many of the actors lines who were overdubbed have come forward saying they did not agree to be in the video and still Google hosts it for all to see in the name of Internet equaility.

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

      Last time I checked, this country still had freedom of speech. How many Christians and Jews in America burn down buildings and kill people anytime we feel our religions have been insulted? Would you have us cower before the fanatics and censor ourselves so as never to "offend"?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mama Mitzi

    This never would have happened if we didn't have an Apologizer-in-Chief for a President. Apologies are seen as weakness by these militant groups.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. John White

    Where were the Marines?
    Why do we have forces posted in comfy stateside posts when people are breaching the walls of three embassies in the Middle East?
    How much money is being paid to "military and intelligence analysts" who are supposed to KNOW that the local forces aren NOT able to keep our people safe?
    The US government FAILS at one of its most important jobs, protecting American citizens, while politicians focus on getting re-elected!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  9. Ben

    CNN, don't you think it is important to mentione, in your article making it look like these were AQ outsiders, that the person the attack was revenge for was al-Libi, which means "The Libyan" and he was from the same f'n city. Ya, so much for your blatant attempts not to tarnish this Libyan movement with extremism.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
  10. Josh

    "The three tried to leave when smoke filled the safe room."

    Doesn't sound very safe to me.

    Didn't Obama or Hillary ever watch the movie "Panic Room"?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  11. smh1999

    Obama "EMPTY CHAIR politics
    The Islamic radicals claim that these attacks are in protest to some film criticizing Islam. In response to this, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement that was so outrageous many of us thought it must be a satire. The embassy actually apologized to the violent mob attacking us, and it even went so far as to chastise those who use free speech to “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” (Funny, the current administration has no problem hurting the “religious feelings” of Catholics.)
    When we read these statements, Obama's claim that they were made before the Embassy attacks are bogus. He was caught napping and proof he has been skipping MOST of his daily briefings.

    The media is in collusion with the Obama administration with selective reporting and distorted, out of context, facts.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • skb8721

      No, you have the chronology of events wrong: The embassy in Cairo issued the statement to which you refer _before_ it was attacked; moreover, it was not an apology - look up the short statement . . . it's all over the Internet . . . and it's basically a summary of American beliefs about religious toleration, one accepted by both left and right in the US.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  12. dubrats

    here is why it is happening....THEY HATE AMERICANS AND ALWAYS WILL.....got it?.....good

    September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  13. Mymaria

    The movie's been available for three months and people can't figure out the attack coincided with Sept. 11? Another fail for Oblablah.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
  14. Johnny Walker

    And I thought Americans got offended by everything. Glad we don't destroy our homeland when another country offends us. They're all idiots if you ask me.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  15. NeoGraphix

    It's amazing how the American people can quickly point the finger at the President for something he has no control over at the beginning. How is he suppose to know that a well cordinated attack using a fake film to stir up protests in a country almost halfway across the planet to kill a US ambassador. So Bush was to blame for the 9/11 attacks because he was president at the time? C'mon man!
    This is an ongoing attack on foreign soil on US Embassies.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:30 am | Report abuse |
    • reality check

      His policies shows he is weak. How could one NOT know this would happen is the greater question. Even the talk radio big mouths predicted this when Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Again, this was predictable. Stop drinking the koolaid and you too will see

      September 13, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      I think you miss the point. Setting aside the question of whether there was any intelligence indicating that this was coming, the perception among many is that the administration's response to the attacks was to apologize. In this view, he is basically saying that America is sorry that our citizens have freedom of speech, and we are sorry that we made people storm our embassies and kill our staff.

      A better response may be to remind protestors that peaceful protests outside of our enbassies and consulates are permissible, and to remind the protestors that there is a clear, bright line – if anyone attempts to force their way into these facilities, or fires a weapon into these facilities, the position of the Unted States is that we have the right, and intention, to use lethal force as a defensive measure.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
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