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. Actually Studies History

    Yor historical analysis is so politically slanted it's pathetic. You can only seem to place blame on one side. Despite being politically frozen into inaction by the Lewinski scandal (which was so important to our national security, not) Clinton's administration did several things to get bin Laden, not the least of which was launch cruise missiles into two islamic nations who had sheltered bin Laden. The immediate effect was the loss of political support for the President who was immediately accused of "wagging the dog." When he left office, warnings were passed on to the Bush administration, who only wanted to invade Iraq and not waste time on bin Laden.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  2. brian

    The fundamental mistake in the article is saying that a group of militants "infiltrated" the march. The march and the furor was started by militants trying to disguise their attacks as general protests in the hopes of fanning wider unrest which is exactly what is happening. As much as I disagree with Ron Paul, it is time to start bringing people and money home from these countries. Yes China will fill the void but so what. We all see how things turned out for the Soviet Union and are turning out for the US by propping up these countries who don't want to observe the standards of diplomatic relations. So be it. Let them fly on their own and let them see how China responds to these types of actions.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      What? Bring people home? This was an embassy attack. All countries should have embassys in other nations to facilitate communication and cooperation. No nation should remove its embassys especially not ours! We would be better off putting more soldiers in these embassys and giving them the power to shoot if the compound is attacked. Having to rely on local defense forces is part of the problem.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. Pragmatist

    The folks posting lines of hatred here towards all muslims and their religion have either lived all their lives as frogs in very small wells OR they have been brainwashed by others who have lived that way. If America wishes to amount to any stature of substance in this world, the majority of silent Americans must not be swayed by these vocal ignorant fools. Otherwise, we will all become like them, frogs living in a well! I challenge these folks to check their opinions with anyone who has traveled outside the USA.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • G

      I have been to the mid east and all I saw was hate for the country thats helped the muslims the most. USA!!!!.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  4. brian

    What was wrong with Romney's statement? Oh just a general lack of understanding of sequence of events.. The statement from the consulate (not the president) was prior to the attacks. To present it as a statement from the president and that it happened after the attack is not just disindigenous but an outright lie. But then he and his VP are notorious for this

    September 13, 2012 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  5. Brian

    LOL @ the thought of Bush playing chess...*snik*

    September 13, 2012 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
  6. What?

    OK John Wayne want-a-bee, "spy boots on the ground"? Is there ever enough "spy boots on the ground" to catch eveything? Wise up will you please.It does not seem like you have a clue as to how complicated this problem is and that there is "NO ONE SIMPLE ANSWER".

    September 13, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  7. grvol

    Obama and Hilliary should resign for gross negligence and stupidity.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
  8. Lexe

    Why be surprised ? this is a country that was bombed by the US just last year, now there is an American film which insults their religion. How would you react if some other country bombed your hometown, killing friends and relatives, also killing your president, and destroying the government then made a film which degraded everything you thought is sacred ?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Roscoe Chait

      You mean killed the dictator?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Well I believe in free speech, why should I care what others say? Its what they do that should concern you.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  9. Aaron

    Many people I can see didn't read the full article. There is good reason to believe that this was a planned al-q attack based on the series of events that took place. The protesters were not that ones that were heavily armed and storming the building; rather the al-q were using the protest itself to mask their attack. That is why there are people in Libya demonstrating against the attacks.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  10. Oldeye

    Reading this thread, I can only imagine what goes through everyone's heads.
    The known facts were given and people like to spin things out of control.
    Based on what we know, it seems that al Queda planned this whole thing.
    Obama will continue to hunt them down with minimal expenses.
    We as a nation, need to search for cohesion and fight to curtail extremism
    from coming ashore. We need to be vigilant. I hope the US Muslim population
    will come forward and support the American handling of all this.
    These are trying times for the Muslims among us. We need to be stronger for
    the better. We need to digest this tragic event to our advantage.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  11. Daniel

    Wow!!! Blowback from Libya so soon. Who would have thought? I don't understand why our ambassador was even in the country on 9/11. All Americans in these Muslim counties should have been evacuated days before. It's common sense. The thing that disturbs me the most is that our government is either 1) too stupid to understand the concept of blowback or 2) hoping something like this would happen so we can start beating the war drums. My guess is the latter. World War III here we come! Go USA!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  12. djackh

    I thought we had Marines guarding the embassies ? Where were they ?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  13. salvadorelogreen

    If this isn't a great indication to pull out of the Middle East, literally pack up everything, all the embassies all the troops, all the support, all the weapons, bombs, planes, soldiers, medical equipment, relief aid, and support by money then I don't know what is. They certainly do not deserve our help or AID any longer. This too includes Israel. Obama if you win. Please get real and get out.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  14. BifBuffo

    Where were the rapid response teams. Why did it take so long for the embassy to get reinforcements. How come the media isn't addressing our seemingly slow or lack of response?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • yessireebob

      They were blogging...

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  15. TruthSeeker

    Why is the media not reporting this accurately? This has been confirmed as a PLANNED attack that has nothing to do with the movie. They planned this attack back in the end of August before the movie was released and the safe house of the ambassador was purposely revealed allowing the mob to kill him.
    They simply used the movie as fuel to the fire to get more mobs involved to make it seem like something else was going on.
    I'm so sick and tired of inaccurate reporting. The news is there to tell the truth not fudge details and create "stories".

    September 13, 2012 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Terry in Florida

      Why? Because sensationalism sells. Even in a cowardly assassination like this if there is a buck to be made it will be so.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
    • aviva1964

      It has been reported! The comments about the film are, just as you say, to prevent additional fanning of the fire. To be clear, the Al Queada attack has been identified in Libya hiding behind the same protesting that Egypt and now Yemen are doing.

      This is all insane. An Embassy employee issued a statement about our nation not intentionally offending the residents of the country that we are in ... and thats somehow an Obama apology and makes us all weak? An angry mob is at the gate, I'm sure the person was terrified and just trying to diffuse a really bad situation.

      Romney is just making this worse. Do we really want a war with all of North Africa and the Middle East? Newt, Mitt, and company seem to think we just just kill them all. I'll stick with Obama and Clinton. Not an Obama fan, but with Hillary running point I'm confident we will get through this.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Wayne

      Yes and why were there zero Marines protecting our Embassies in Muslim Nations. On 9/11 of all days.Is this a result of out President's arrogance, he truly believes these people like or respect him. What part of " death to America" doesn't he understand. They hate us and no President can or will change that. How is it that our intelligence people did not have our Embassies on high alert ? These are questions that need answers

      September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Lynn

      Yep. You got it right buddy. Next question: What was the role of pastor Terry Jones and his egyptian filmmaker friend ? Did they make contact with Al Queda and pretend (the guy speaks Arabic) to be Muslim sympathizers? Did they provoke this attack on America?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
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