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. Tampabay

    This was a deliberate 9/11 attack on the U.S. 11 years later.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • us_1776

      It's the same type of paid terrorists who are trying to disrupt democratization of the middle-east and north africa.

      And this time let's not spend 4 trillion dollars and attack the wrong countries.

      These groups are no bigger than an L.A. gang. Let's react appropriately.


      September 12, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Chandler Talleur

    Let me just say this, the most destructive attack against a nation is an attack that goes blameless.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. AngryAmerican

    Great job killing Ghadafi NATO!!!! Look what kind of mess you left in that country. It's a lot worse off then it was with him in power.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Serg


      September 13, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
    • infowraith

      That was the point. We kill him, and then we HAVE to step in and take care of them...since we are here....we might as well establish a president that we can later kill and a regime that we fund and now need to attack and well we might as well establish permanent bases and oil pipelines and military presence. I have seen the bases in the middle me...they are permanent.....Premeditated false flag...

      September 15, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. twalk

    Go over to Fox news.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • hawkins

      fox news is the worst?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
    • ug

      No...the truth will be told here...get use to it...

      September 13, 2012 at 7:04 am | Report abuse |
    • ug

      No we will tell the real truth...get use to it.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
    • mtb

      Great advice...especially if you want the real TRUTH...otherwise hang around CNN to fill your cool-aid cup...

      September 13, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • hewlit alcid

      he was a cia operative, messing where he shouldnt

      September 19, 2012 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      Pa. Like that is going to be any better. smh

      September 13, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • AJW3

      For a good laugh?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • imakele

      Now why would anyone wanting the truth of the matter willingly go to FOX News?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Go over to FAUX news and be lied to? Yeah right!

      September 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • carol abaray

      the reality of ignorance and cruelty is reflected in the pictures. Not a sight for faint hearts. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who perished. It would be my fervent hope that they are already in a "kinder, gentler, world".Perhaps the city of a thousand light of which the former President Bush,father Bush, spoke sometime back. Human evolution is a very slow process.Switching channels will not change that, but it may make you feel better.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. AngryAmerican

    Now the U.S. government wants to do the same thing in Syria and destabilize that country too. This is what bringing "freedom" looks like.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • HoustonNative

      So it sounds as if you're siding with the Russians and Chinese on Syria. I'll bet you think of yourself as a patriot, too.

      September 12, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bones78

      Its a no-win situation for nothing and you'll attack him as heartless, uncaring and weak, but intervene and it will be HIS fault for the problems that occur as a nation tries to pick up the pieces and improve. I seem to remember Republicans justifying the war in Iraq (after the fact) by saying "at least we removed an evil dictator". I get it, you don't like the POTUS, but stick to the things he can actually control when you're complaining

      September 13, 2012 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  6. Richard

    Obama and the West destabilized a benign (to them) semi-secular socialist regime and helped install another Muslim theocracy and they just got a sample of what their meddling has caused.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • BigWaveAlex

      Carter gave us a militant islamic Iran. Obama will give us a militant islamic nuclear Iran, a militant islamic Egypt and a militant islamic Libya. Well done.

      September 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • bspurloc

      yes cuz carter support the uprising there..... and Libya was Italy and Frances baby, they are the MAJOR importers of Libyan sweet crude...
      Meanwhile MIttens just landed in Poland to Observe Russian Troop movements in response to this

      September 14, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  7. peick

    If any Libyans are reading this, I believe you. I believe that this was done by extremists taking advantage of the protest already going on and that it was probably planned to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bubba

    You didn't build that!

    September 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. S

    Someone here at home helped fan the flames... a conservative group looking to profit from another oil war.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacqueline Dickens

      I am fortunate to have been born and raised in a country like America, even though I was born in the times of segregation in the South. But I have never felt such hatred from my fellow Americans as now. Most of us believe in the same GOD, but CHOOSE to worship differently. Blaming, sarcasm, and hateful words reflex on the person giving it, not the people receiving it. You also have the right not to believe in GOD without having to be beat up about it. I cannot understand how so many people have such sickness in their hearts and minds. They will be eaten from within by that.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  10. jholland27

    we are so manipulated and controlled – we are like muslims – blind followers and calling for war over this just as the muslims do when they are offended

    September 12, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • local

      Hopefully the next mob comes to your house................When these basterds come over the wall gun em down no apologies or explanations needed. Illegally enter my the price.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  11. Abdul


    I am sending my deepest condolence to the family of our out standing Ambassador and his loved one. Also, to the family of the staff that got killed by the very same people whom they put their lives on the line to save them from the butcher of Bengazi. However, this goes to show how ungrateful, shameless, pathetic, inhuman, and above all undeservedly they paid us back and what a great way to show your appreciation when we saved you from being wiped of the face of earth. Bravo Arabs.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eddy

    I heard the film producer is a jew? Was it a coincidence?

    September 12, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastapharian

      several conflicting reports of who the films was made by, or his nationality or religion. It could be karl rove for all we know.
      That makes more sense.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
    • imakele

      He was not a jew, he was a Coptic Christian, meaning he was an Egyptian Christian.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jeff

    too bad that the Marines didn't have a couple of .50 cals on top of roof. They should've had more fire power. But the politics won't allow it. Hearing some of the things that happened over there, reminds me of Black Hawk Down.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Chris

    Islam. The religion of peace.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • HoustonNative

      This was not Islam that committed this atrocity. It was an al-Qaida cell that overwhelmed the consulate guards. Do you think all Christianity should be held responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995? That was committed by an evil man (Timothy McVeigh) who claimed to be a Christian. See how ridiculous your argument is?

      September 12, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • ug

      LOL! peace my is all obamas fault.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:05 am | Report abuse |
  15. buffalo

    Meanwhile, "Mittens" opens his mouth and puts both feet in it. What an out-of-touch pretender to the throne.

    September 12, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • us_1776

      Romney is such a clueless idiot. He understands nothing about foreign policy and still thinks Russia is our enemy.


      September 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Bundy

      Throne? When did the presidency become a throne? Since your messiah has occupied it? Unlike what you think of Obama, I don't expect Mitt to be perfect, he's not my savior.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
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