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. @booneboxmusic

    WELL LOOK OUT TO ALL OBAMA WILL BE IN CHARGE FOR ANOTHER 4YEARS. HAVE ANY OF YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT WILL YOU HAVE DONE IF YOU WERE IN THE PRESIDENT SHOES IN THE TUFF SPOTS HE HAS BEEN IN?
    OR REALLY ASK YOURSELF WHAT WILL ROMNEY DO ABOUT THIS? HOW ABOUT THE CHILDREN HE RETURN FROM THE BUSH WAR? BUT LETS HOPE THE NEWS DON’T USE THIS SITUATION AS A GREY CLOUD TO GET THE UNDECIDED VOTERS TO GO VOTE FOR THE OTHER TEAM. YALL CAN HAVE NIKKI MINAJ OBAMA FOREVER WITH THE BOONE BOX SQUAD.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  2. George

    Welcome to mob mentality. It needs no reason; just a spark. Mobs are easily lead and incited. That's why thugs, tyrants, and politicians love them (as long as they can control them).

    September 13, 2012 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  3. Smartin

    I wouldn't be suprised if this gets blamed on Bush like everything else thats happened to this country for the past 12 years.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  4. joseph o.

    Islam in my opinion is remains the greatest threat to world peace.
    Their so called prophet has done more to undermine world peace than any murderer in human history.
    I will urge leaders of the free world to be bold and honest.
    Islam is a religion of blood, hate, murder, and evil.
    It seeks world domination.
    It moves with such cleverness that if not watched will enslave us all
    What ever religion seeks to rule us through fear and intimadation must be condemn by all.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  5. Andrey

    Well you thought you bought them out and have them in your pocket: and they have stabbed you in the back.
    So are you so stupid to believe that have happened because of some film? Or do you try to look a bit further and see that is because of poor choice of friends you buy when you go shopping?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  6. craig crawford

    FORWARD, it's the NEW Backwards!!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  7. vryadli

    When West rid of lay Gaddafi in AL-Qaeda oriented bandits, any human is some knowladge of region saw it coming...

    Separate thanks for Sarcozy for pushng it through , honorable mentuns for Romny and Palin for fierce defense of "arab spring".

    September 13, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • perennial2

      What?
      Is English your 3rd – or 4th – language?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  8. local

    Romney is a idiot. If you like this chump just fed ex him all your assests now, because he will take them when elected. How do you feel about speaking Arabic or Chinnese, you better poractice up. Romney is a idiot.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  9. John

    Islam – Any excuse to attack the USA is good. The world will do better once this filth is eradicated.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. quit the hate

    Anyone notice how people who blame Obama for all the evil in the world think exactly like terrorist who blame Americans for all the evil in the world? hmmmmm.....

    September 13, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. Gran

    Couldn't have said it better myself!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  12. EdL

    Officials' are giving conflicting accounts about whether the attack was planned before the protest or the protest was used as a divesrsion. Who should care? 'Moderate' Islamists turn violent if something less than nice is said about Mohammed. They do not value their own lives and see nothing wrong in murdering a few infidels.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  13. AJW3

    When you look at the big picture these mobs are an extremely small percentage of the Muslim population. Do we really want WW3 blood on our hands for such a small group. It would be like invading Los Angeles when there is rioting because the Lakers just won the championship.

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

    Someone please explain to me why we even bother with these nutcases? Pull everyone out, leave that dirt pile to it's own destruction, and go on with our lives. They cannot be reasoned with, and you can't kill them all, so i say we just wash our hands of the place.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  15. The ponder

    The Mossad Mastermind
    The Benghazi incident is an obvious blot by the Mossad (Israeli secret service) to bring the US and Israeli foreign politic regarding Iran close.
    The only beneficiary from that incident is Israel.
    Look Beyond the Obvious
    It’s time for the US to open its eyes on the real face of Israel’s politicians.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
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