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. badcafe

    Pretty scary when one isolated person can say something that can spin adherents of a whole religion into turmoil, be it Pastor Jones, Salman Rushdie or Sam Bacile... on the one hand, insulting other religions is never condonable, but on the other hand, how insecure are these people that one misguided comment by a lone vigilante can get them up in arms? Such acts will only provoke further insults and offenses hurled at them... the imams and Islamists need to come out and explain that faith should not be so fragile.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
  2. enuftrashtalk

    A 4 hour assault on an embassy, and the "government" of Libya was unable to intervene or take action of any kind ??

    And why is the US Government leaving foreign service officers in such a perilous situation. A safe room? People dying of smoke inhalation in a "safe room" ?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • SmokeFilledSafeRoomLOL

      Honestly, I am beginning to think the "U.S. govt" is a couple of people, clueless and incompetent leveraging media to create the illusion of infrastructure and competence. Instead, they're like Oz behind the curtain. They can't even control the misconduct of judges and lawyers in our court system anymore. ALL IS LOST. We simply allowed lawyers to consume ALL THREE BRANCHES OF OUR GOV'T and this is the end-result: CRIME.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  3. badcafe

    (a) Obama did not release that statement, the embassy did, with no clearance from the US. (b) This happened BEFORE the attacks, so the only thing at the time was a lone vigilante who does not speak for us, deliberately trying to rile up people and put our folks in harm's way – so the embassy did the right thing at the time, trying to douse the fires. (c) The comments had no 'apologies' to any attackers (since there had been no attacks yet), but to people who are being insulted NOT by us, but someone (a low grade movie producer) who has NOT been cleared to speak for us.... those are the facts.. now, spin them how you want.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |

    Why is there no mention of two most important questions: Why was there not enough support from Libyan government of our drones for 4 hours? Why did we move into an Embassy building that was so vulnerable to terrorist attacks?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
  5. OHbrother!

    My Fellow Citizens:
    I think we are in need of a 3rd party!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • SmokeFilledSafeRoomLOL

      I agree. We need to also outlasw lawyers sitting in legislative and executive branches of government so THE PEOPLE can restore integrity and order.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mike

    Amercians biggest downfall was thinking they could solve the middle east.. pack up and go home you havent solved anything other then causing deaths to thousands from both sides.. they all died in vain

    September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Damian

      I'm afraid you are right.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  7. Damian

    We are never going to able to control fringe groups of extremists. They are beyond wrong in condemning the whole US for one stupid irresponsible film makers doing! What was he thinking? Freedom is one thing and stupidity is another. He has provoked and put our US citizens in harms away !

    September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  8. dreamer96

    Many things about the US Embassy attack in Libya are like the Us Embassy in Tehran...the attackers used a demonstration as cover for a military style assault on the embassy....But in Tehran the attack was approved by the Iranian Government...This does not seem to be the case in Libya..The government was not hostile to the US...but we know Al-Qaeda was in Libya during the Arab Spring and foreign mercenaries forces were there too..We will find out who was behind it....just like in Egypt, and in Yemen..Al-Qaeda is known to be active in those countries....

    September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Damian

      Good post..........more than likely AL-Qaeda or a sister group was responsble for this.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. Alex

    The all thing happened after product a movie of prophet Mohammad so the point is why TRY JHONS agreed with the movie and why he burned the qura'an and why the made that movie ????????? are they trying to make a big confidence between Muslims and Christians and they trying to start the war , i am sad to say all of the killers and whom do that DO NOT BELONG TO ANY RELIGION ( killing , Drama , Action , the problems between religions) is made by people whom are sick mentally those are real devils (its politic).

    September 13, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Colorado Reader

      This incident is not about religion or movies. America has members of all religions – including Muslims. But we are one nation under God. This was an attack on America. Why do we continue to allow attacks on our Nation with no response. Let's get some Marines over there and start kicking some doors down.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
  10. Alex

    there is people who solve the problems using their brain and logic , peace and love be between us like a humans no matter what religion we belong to or race

    September 13, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  11. TomZ

    IF the battle went on for hours, why didn't the government or police step in to stop the gunfight? Also I heard that 10 other people inside the compound were killed, is this number true and if so why is there mention of them.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • ksnj

      When are we finally going to be smart enough to insist on placing our own security forces – in number – at embassies in volatile countries like this one? Remember Iran in 1979??? Come on.....

      September 13, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  12. NeoGraphix

    US Muslims were targeted two days after 9/11 in NYC with hate. Threats, vandalism, assault. Here we go again.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • shawn

      if NYC muslims were targeted after 9/11, that's BIG IF, since I live in nyc and have not heard such things, they were called some racist names at most. No one killed a muslim and dragged him thru the street like these animals – don't get me wrong, we could have done alot more than drag someone thru Park Ave, but we are civilized society and we don't react like these un/mis-educated muslims.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mae White

      Threats, vandalism, namecalling- maybe.

      But sodomizing and killing?

      Hardly on the same scale, wouldn't you agree, Neo?

      September 23, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ola coola

    Attacking foreign embassies is the best thing the Muslims can do, nothing else.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
    • local

      If they come over the wall......BLOW THEM AWAY...... Over running a embassy is the same as illegally entering private property and by any and all means one can and should be defended. Who are these cowards anyway DEFEND YOURSELF.....Let Obama explain away not being politically correct.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
    • DL

      Yes – they need to learn to invade nations, send cruise missles into cities at night, fly attack drones over other nations and steal other nations resources – oh, and claim they are the good guys – that way, they'll be just like us.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jim R

    The images of American flags burning and the deaths of Americans at the hands of jihadists will change the perception of American influence in the region in the eyes of Americans, our allies and our foes. The Obama administration has a full-blown crisis on its hands, and as yet, there is no sign it knows what to do about it.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Catherine

      They can burn all the flags they want, but it will never change the idea of America. As for no sign of what the Obama adminstration will do about this, are you serious? I believe that would be classified. I just as soon NOT know if knowing would tip off the bad guys. Let them work behind the scenes and take care of things. Remember, we didn't know they were still actively looking for Bin Laden until they told us he was dead. Works for me.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Doc Knowitall

      This is Obama's campfire folks, he is basking in the flames. It fits his narrative of what America is and he will attempt to use this crisis against the American people.

      September 14, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. HangarXVIII

    And Islam is not a violent religion... Whatever.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
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