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. cc423

    Conservatives are a joke. President Bush and his crew ignored tons of intelligence pointing to the 9/11 attacks and 3000 Americans lost their lives. Then conservatives LIE and say that President Obama apologized to radical Islamists who attacked our Embassy. What a bunch of boneheads.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • bigdumbdinosaur

      And what about the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center? Wasn't that of intel being ignored (by Clinton), or was it just an unfortunate coincidence? You liberals need to pulls your collectives craniums out of your rectums for once and see where your philosophy has lead us.

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

      How do you know that CC423? You have any proof of what your spouting off?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Mich

      Is this the Twilight Zone? Jimmy Carter and 1979...!.......History does repeat itself. WOW

      September 13, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  2. BobZemko

    Your utterly bizarre view of reality is quite fascinating.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. bigdumbdinosaur

    The Obama administration has been kissing the Muslim katushka for all this time, yet this is how they pay us back. Guess all that bending over and puckering hasn't helped, eh? Let's try some military firepower the next time this happens.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  4. IslamWeinstein

    This film should win an Oscar!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  5. Billy Bill Boy

    People don't like to see their loved ones insulted (if you truly love them). Muslims love the Messenger of God more than anything else. What makes things worse is when the ignorant fools who are all about "freedom of expression" insult him in such a cowardly way. Muslims are open to debates and discussions, but to mock and run away like a coward will not benefit the Coptic Christians or the Israeli Jews or Christian Extremists. Muslims will get stronger in their love and faith because of acts like these.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
  6. Colleen

    If you're shocked you need to be. You can't go around telling other people not to make fun of your religion. Its impossible and pointless to expect a non-believer to revere your faith the way you do. If your faith is strong, it shouldn't bother you. Islam and its traditions and treatment of women need to come out of the dark ages. What England did to the Muslim community during WWI and after was horrible but you have to move on. Is being a Muslim mean to hold bitterness in your heart or to forgive and move on. Christians need to learn the same. Religion needs to stop expecting other people who don't believe it to cowtow to it. You don't respect my secular view then I will have a very hard time respecting yours. I want to though, but you've gotta show some movement on your side too.

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

      @colleen: Your views are ignorant, I am sorry to say. Many, Many Muslims are tolerant and you are not going to fix (nor am I, as a Muslim) the 19 people who are militant. They are carrying guns and it's best not to talk to them or communicate with them. It seems that somehow, some WAY, the pastor from Florida and the guy who advocated protests–a coptic Christian sitting in Egypt are spreading hate speech that incites extremists and I have to believe they found each other–because the extremists found out about the protests and were prepared! The key is not that they react. Extremists will always react. The key is preparing ourselves and not dividing under pressure. Muslims can not spreadh more violence and Christians can not as well, as a result, or we will fail as a result of Extremists. My advice is: Don't let Extremists run the agenda we are discussing. The Middle East doesn't need to be preached at that speech needs to be open. Every single person I know from North Africa already understands that–which is why they just had a revolution. Those in Egypt and Lybia who do not like free speech do not like any of us–you us, or anyone else who doesn't agree. We will all have to buckle down. Stop calling Muslims all people of the dark ages. That's a start.. Then promptly protest the pastor in Florida... that is OUR right to free speech–right back at Mr. Jones and his protege, Mr. Sam/Samir Basil.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BillZ

    The libbies on the board are not capable of processing this kind of common sense. They are all under the delusion that simply talking to these people will produce results.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  8. Athiest=Religion=ignorance

    I see a lot of attacks on religion being the cause of all these issues and a call from Atheists to remove religion as some sort of fix all our wrongs in the world. Removing religion will have no more an affect on removing strife in the world than removing muslims. Aithiest views pointing out hatered of religion are no different than Christian/Muslim/Jewish ect hatred of each other. As far as I am concerned you are no different. One group believe there is a high power and one believes they are the higher power. You are both wrong.

    The only thing that will prevent these types of situations is when people stop attacking everyone elses personal liberties under the delusion that there is only one way to live your life correctly. When everyone in the world can walk down the street and not care if you are a Christian/Jew/Muslim/Athiest/hetro/republican/dope smoker and sees a human being with rights that should be respected and are able to live their life as they see fit, that is when this garbage will stop. No sooner and no later. Attacking a religion is the same as attacking all religions or any other personal freedoms, it is no different.

    This world is not black and white nor should it be expected to be, People just need to learn to respect other peoples differences and recognize a murderer is a murderer regardless or their affiliants and shoudl be dealt with accordingly, like the individuals that carried out these attacks.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • GrampaSez

      Well said sir. Also note that the UN says only 16% of the world's population is atheist or agnostic or "undecided" about religion.

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

      Great post – and reasons mentioned here are some of why I will vote for Gary Johnson 2012

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • villageparrot

      This is a simply wise remark that I can certainly relate with. Until we all learn to respect one another's views and beliefs we are very far from attaining peace.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Samuel Saucer

    The theme here seems to be we should blame the video maker and not the religious fanatics. It's the NORM in this country to make fun of christians but if someone makes fun of islam we should blame that person?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • aviva1964

      The problem is that this "film maker" made this film to intentionally provoke outrage. He had it translated into Egyptian for $&-ks sake! The first amendment is PRECIOUS ... to intentionally abuse it specifically to provoke violence should be considered an act of treason. No doubt this is EXACTLY the response this idiot wanted.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
  10. Billy Bill Boy

    People don't like to see their loved ones insulted (if you truly love them). Muslims love the Messenger of God more than anything else. What makes things worse is when the ignorant fools who are all about "freedom of expression" insult him in such a cowardly way. Muslims are open to debates and discussions, but to mock and run away like a coward will not benefit the Coptic Christians or the Israeli Jews or Christian Extremists. Muslims will get stronger in their love and faith because of acts like these. Fear Your Lord.

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

      haha. you really have no clue.

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

      I would like to disagree with you there. If a religion, which is unfortunately known by many, with glaring proofs, for violence and injustice against humanity, is termed 'violent', do you prove you are 'peaceful' by making a statement with a devastating, cowardly violent action?

      I understand that we should respect the next person's religious belief and faith, and I agree with that to a very large extent, but should a slandered faith have the believers and followers foster violence? It doesn't make sense to me.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Alexa

    Also you kids get outta my yard!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  12. GrumpyMel

    Libya was known to be in a fragile state where rule of law was unstable. The real question is why didn't we have a sufficiently sized embassy security detachment (e.g. Marines) there in order to prevent this from happening? If there really were only around 20 millitants who staged this, the Marines should have been able to wipe the floor with them, if it was a sufficiently sized and equiped security detail. So what happened?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  13. Mich

    Is this the Twilight Zone? Jimmy Carter and 1979...!.......History does repeat itself. WOW !!

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

    The Obama administration is really asleep at the wheel on this one. It's so bad, I'm embarrassed for them. They aren't projecting strength, but rather weakness, to our enemies. It will only encourage them to keep up the attacks, since they know Obama will only continue to wring his hands, grovel, appease, etc.

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

    Democrats stepped up to the camera and said how PROUD they were of the OWS demonstrators.

    How are the ARAB DEMONSTRATORS in front of our embassies DIFFERENT than OWS?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim01

      I noticed a distinct lack of murders and bombings during OWS. Nice strawman argument. Ultimately futile against anyone with a brain, but at least you're trying.

      Peacefuil protest and demonstration is just fine. Throw in some firebombings and killing people? Not so much. Big difference. Again, though, nice try.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • GrampaSez

      "PEACEFUL PROTEST"? even a dishonest lib MUST have seen the RIOTS and MOLOTOV COCTAILS being thrown at the OAKLAND and NEW YORK RIOTS. Learn to use You Tube.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
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