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. Henry Baxley

    This gives The USA another excuse to kill hundreds of innocent women and children.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  2. jumpinfish

    This is insanity.
    Americans didn't make the video... how is the American embassy a legit target?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • GrampaSez

      Your question would have made more sense if you had asked, "How can dishonest OWS-type demonstrators USE the film as justification for WHAT THEY WANTED TO DO?"

      September 13, 2012 at 11:37 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.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  3. darthvader

    realy now militants every year world wide attempt some kind of action for 9/11 .if you want to blame someone blamethe current administration for all the security leaks a while ago. security leaks always screw with relations

    September 13, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  4. BoneHeadsRUs

    That's what people seem to forget. . .10 Libyan lives were lost trying to protect US citizens and diplomats. They died to protect Americans. There's good guys and bad guys on both sides, and this good vs. evil thing goes way back to the start of humanity. If you really look at it, there's not even "sides" to pick because there's so much similarity between Muslims and those that they call "infidels." Read the Koran, and read the Bible, and you'll see similarities. You'll say that is preposterous and unbelievable, right? Christians before the Renaissance used to call non-believers "Heretics." So some trolls on here need to remember that Christians went through Renaissance. The Muslims will do the same if given the chance – they need their Renaissance. The only hope for world peace must come from the Middle Eastern, predominately Muslim countries. Religious zealots and thugs on both sides need to learn that a good education is the answer to ignorance and greed. And really, is it worth it to have other people fighting and dying over boneheaded ignorant fools' actions so that they can live in peace? Yes, it is. It's called Freedom, and America can be the good guy.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  5. darthvader

    look now the whole region going up against us because of a few backward individuals

    September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. darthvader

    hey obummer gettn ready for another apology tour

    September 13, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Mainer

      As I read the posts on this thread , I cant get over the HATE you Go-P/Tea Nuts spew. Our president HAS NOT apologized... You sir are a LIAR.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • bspurloc

      ....and u fail at your Obama whatever attempt.... It is ok for u to admit goerge wmd bush hurt u bad so badly... call Dr Phil he can talk it out with u so u dont have to keep barking at innocent people.

      September 14, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  7. Bones78

    "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts." Where is the apology in this statement from the President? He IS clarifying our values, freedom of religion is one of our values still, right? All he said was the movie was reprehensible but that it was not a justification for violence, and that we would see justice served....again, no apology, not a mixed message...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  8. americanspirit

    Exactly a conformity of hate will result in hate

    September 13, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  9. americanspirit

    We can all remain unbias

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

    There is a thin line between bias statements and beliefs

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  11. americanspirit

    The results are in...Finally people are getting punished for internet hate crimes

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  12. americanspirit

    You just find the richest people to put on your show CNN not the hardworking soldiers that have to clean up your suppose conservative mess on America.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  13. dessymara

    I agree w u 100%

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  14. lee ann hansen

    Excellent, Natalie Rose.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  15. GrampaSez

    Along the Judeo-Christian-Muslim "GOD" religions, many of us see the "muslim" religion as being the "MAN'S RELIGION" in that they are MORE LIKELY to lend themselves to violent conflict and response to provocation.

    Then some see the GREEK PHILOSOPHY, CHRISTIAN, and JEWISH faiths as the "woman's religion", that has provided a "leaven" to the world to bring morality, has proved to be a "slave's religion", and is SOMEWHAT LESS LIKELY to manufacture adherents of WAR as a means to solve conflict.

    The EUGENICS movements, the COMMUNIST POGRAMS that have killed MILLIONS, the AMERICAN ABORTION movement (originally started as a way to "LIMIT" black fertility), are the ATHEISTS. Intellectual, without recognizeable morality, and calculated in assessing who has to be killed for their goals. This "FAITH" is characterized by those that see themselves as ABOVE the laws and rules they would put upon"the masses".

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