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. anwar

    Do we ever see Bible or Torah burning, or threats to burn those books. Do we hear any group denigrating Jesus or Moses, or for that matter any other prophet or religion. Are there any Utubes videos, that insult prophets of any other religion., or cartoons depicting Moses or Jesus in insulting manners. First amendment, however dear to us, does not teach disrespect of others.
    We have to scale back our anger and hatred. It has become fashionable to insult Islam, Muslims , the Holy Prophet. While most of the Muslim world has reacted with restraints, there are always people who act first and think later.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • A W Messenger

      The answer is yes, they do it all the time ..... the difference is, it doesn't become a world issue because Christians and Jews are from a TRUE religion of peace, and they don't riot as a result.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      Actually, yes. There have been multiple occasions in which the Bible was burned. There have been "art" displays depicting Jesus in a bottle of urine. Movies, books, and other forms of media have been produced which claim that Jesus was a fake, a fornicator, and even some things that weren't very nice. There have been some truly horrible things said and done to Christians, and I believe we all know what was done to the Jews.

      The reason you do not hear about these events is because, unlike Islam, most other religions value peace. Their doctrines can stand the light of day and do not have to be concealed behind a wall of violence.

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

      Yes. Check out South Park or Mel Brooks. There is irreverance displayed from every religion and towards every religion. Its the idea of tolerance that is missing.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Doc Knowitall

      We see it all the time moron. Turn on the TV and just listen to the insults fly from the progressive left. EVen George Carlin verbally attacked Christianity on a regular basis.

      September 14, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  2. skb8721

    One thing I do not understand: Where were the US Marines that are usually stationed at embassies and consulates? I would think there would have been enough US firepower on reserve in these compounds to stop a small army. We might not have wanted to use weapons against the protesters in Egypt - the worst they did was trespass and burn our flag - but in Libya we definitely would have been right to defend our compound with firearms used by highly-trained US Marines who surely would have stopped a ragtag team of militants. This is what I don't understand.

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

      im sure there was enough fire power to blast everyone one of those animals to their 72 virgins but we can't just start shooting are people – even tho in this case deadly force seems more than reasonable.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jim R

    Obama has forced the USA into the position of displaying its vulnerable underbelly to our enemies (and his dubious friends), so that it is easier to kill us on all levels. After Candidate Romney held his press conference to denounce the Islamists (which was peppered with the Obama-press demanding answers to their questions that pertained only to “their Obama” while seemingly unconcerned about the chaos and deaths of the Ambassadorial staff in Libya), Obama finally came out from the shadows and was forced to make a speech. One that—if you watched him deliver it—he did not appear to enjoy making. Said speech was devoid of any passion and was delivered in an obligatory and almost disengaged manner.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  4. Steve- Illinois

    Only this administration, and the kool-aid drinking libs would be so naive to belive this had anything to do with some obscure film that's been out since June. Our facilities must not be very secure if 20 militants can over take the place in 15 minutes!
    What a boat load of incompetence!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. bcarreiro

    Ignorance is bliss when it comes to money, free media and that when it comes into the wrong hands can be (as we have seen) destructive. The filmmaker (who probably has ties to alqueda) knew all to well what he was doing and that many would be offended. When a country that is fighting for democracy he knew this could happen and as he said he has no regrets just like a romney demeanor making it for a political gain when indeed it is all to personal and real.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • bigdumbdinosaur

      The film-maker, misguided though he may be, does have First Amendment protection. Do you have a problem with that?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  6. F.E.A.R. (False Evidence Appearing Real)

    I guess it doesn't matter who dies, as long as it's not an American?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  7. skb8721

    >What facts do you need before you issue a
    >statement about yet again another attack on U.S. interests

    Romney issued a statement condemning a previous statement issued by the US embassy in Cairo: However, that previous statement was issued _before_ any attacks had taken place. In short, Romney did not understand the situation, screwed up the chronology of events, and condemned something that did not actually occur. When presented with the actual course of events, Romney refused to acknowledge his error and - in a very George W. Bush way - insisted that he still believed his description of events was correct even though the evidence showed clearly that he was incorrect.

    This is what's wrong with Romney's statement.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  8. Pritch

    So point one says it was done because of an anti muslim film, then point 2 says they don't know why the attack happened, but eluded to a plot. Then they seem to focus bigtime on this "movie". They almost go as far as blaming the movie, but aren't quite sure. This sort of confusion and lack of knowing what is going on is very concerning. But really no mention of another 9/11 type of attack.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jay Shelley

    The attack took place on 9/11, proving that USA has knocked the stuffing out of Al Qaeda. All the wimpy musliims can do is attack small buildings now. Hahahaha. Sorrow for the death of a great Ambassador, but no one in the US takes musliims seriously any more.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • NeoGraphix

      I doubt that. Tell that to the members of Al-Qaeda that are living in the US.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
  10. PETER

    Where were the libyian security forces during this four hour attack?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • NeoGraphix

      They were overwhelmed by the crowds of protesters. Thats why the attack worked so well.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  11. Cheryl

    I think CNN should be ashamed of their reporting on this yesterday in terms of the individual that was killed. The story as far as who was injured or killed had not even been verified officially and they have the guy's picture and name all over the place. Other stations were not so cold about this – they mentioned there were casualties but no names mentioned as the names had not been verified. I wish the reporters and anchors could understand the hurt they might have caused just to get a story out there first. Disgusting and inhumane

    September 13, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  12. Linds

    Sooo....if Muslims come to our country, they have the right to freedom of religion and speech...even after Sept 11... If they want others to believe that Islam is a "peaceful" religion, they sure are not helping matters by all of the violence and killing "in the name of Allah" or whatever.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
    • shawn

      Soooo how uneducated people are so easy to fool.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pritch

    anwar, are you serious? Jesus is mocked and ridiculed relentlessly by atheists and comedians all accross the united states. What are you talking about? I do not see anyone getting killed over it. Quit apologizing for a religion whose fringe is a bunch of murderous thugs. Remove this faction of worshipers from your religion and then we can honestly talk.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. warrior45

    The U.S. government needs to stop trying to play the politcal game with all these 3rd world countries, obviously you can bend over backwords for the middle eastern countries, we allow them to come to the U.S., claim asylum, become residents, and then citizens of the U.S. andf then they sponsor there 50 some family members to come the U.S. and take schools from children that were born in this country and there parents pay school taxes also they come to the U.S. and take all the jobs in the U.S. We as a country are losing are back bone to first of all take care of the citizens of the United States first that were born here and have a right to be here. So for these so called prophets of Mohammad to attack the U.S. embassies abroad, it is just like attacking the United States in North America. To burn the United States flag and put there piece of trash black islamic flag in its place makes me puke. We need to make these countries pay, they can apologize all they want and blame it on al qaeda, but in all actuality it probaly makes there government and there country silently proud that this was done to the U.S.

    We need to man up and start cleaning up the trash of this world.

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

    What's going to be surprising to all is that the maker of the film will be an Al-Qaeda militant who made the film as part of a plan to start riots and a bigger plan to attack US embassies. Just like we didn't know the hijackers of airplanes on 9/11 would be in the USA this is the same. Militants of Al-Qaeda are here in the US like they were in 2001 and are now starting to attack.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
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