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. GiantJimmy

    How many have died at the hands of Christians over the past two centuries? The murder of innocents for fairy tale beliefs is idiotic and unjustified, regardless whether you refer to the dead as heretics (as the Christians referred to their enemies) or infidels.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. BifBuffo

    Are our embassies really this vulnerable? Don't we have rapid response teams for this part of the world? What was the level of security during this 9/11 anniversary date which just so happened to coincide with the release of a film that was sure to cause Muslim upset? If we can't safeguard our embassies better than this, we need to shut them down and not use these poor civil servants as cannon fodder.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Mr Woo

      It was a consulate, not the embassy. Not that it makes THAT much of a difference, but usually its the main embassy that is the centre of protest.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • safe room

      I vote for better engineered safe rooms and protection for our Foreign Servants. This type of fanatiscism will continue to exist in the world. It is the nature of the beast. Glad we live in a country of free speech. God Bless our USA!!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. GrampaWrongz

    Socialist is far left. Fascism is far right. Nazis were fascists. you have no idea what you are talking about.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  4. Maryam

    o....except that all of these people were NOT devout followers of Islam simply because if they were then they would not have done these things. The Quran states that you will be punished for the murder of one human as if you have murdered all of mankind. %20 of the world's population is Muslim and that number is growing faster than any other religion...If this nonsense is what our religion really stood for then we would have accomplished whatever our supposed mission is long ago.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. maratechfan

    So the War on Terror continues!

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

    I believe in a God that is green and rectangular shaped. He exist within many people (be it their wallets, purses, hand-bags, banks). The God I believe in has many faces. His most powerful asset is that he brings happiness through compensation. This God has proven time and time again that he is capable of great destruction. If you don't believe me, it is also printed on the back of his head, "In God we trust."

    September 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Eric

    Romeny said that Obama was apologizing to the attackers, which was incorrect. The embassy statement Romney was referring to was issued before the attack even happened.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ricco

    Sounds as though, Scott is the little boy afraid, as he prepares himself for his last days. One thing is for sure, if an agnostic is wrong, he goes to not such a great hereafter. If a believer is wrong so what. The important thing here is for people to try and live a peacful productive life, without doing it at the expense of others. Simple blogs like this really show how little we have evolved.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jimbo

    Sounded like you are willing to fight terroists that you can hardly identify in any muslim contries. Easy for you to sit in a comfortable home 3,000 miles away. You can not even fight off crimes in your area, I bet.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. MacinBlack

    See! This is why we are still hunting Aimen al zuwahiri in afghanistan! He called on any militants to try and cause unrest while libya is in it's own turmoil. He must be found and executed. till we find him we have to keep up the fight in afghanistan. OBL down 1 more big snakehead to go.

    My deepest condolences to Steven's family. RIP brother.

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

    You are right!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mr Woo

    "What facts do you need before you issue a statement about yet again another attack on U.S. interests..." Right there in a nutshell. It sums up conservative responses to anything...."what facts do you need?" Fact are everything. Fact. Osama bin Laden is the creation of CIA under Reagan and Bush. Fact. How would Clinton know that a former asset has turned against them. Fact. When Dubya took office the outgoing Clinton administration strongly advised them on the dangers of al-Queda. And Dubya ignored it. Fact. Recent information states that in the weeks and months leading up to 9/11 there were many mentions of a possible attack in the morning briefings. They were ignored. Fact. One year after 9/11, Dubya said he was 'unconcerned' about bin Laden and that he wasn't a 'priority'. Fact. Six years later, at the end of Bush's term, bin Laden was still running al-Queda from the comfort of his mansion. Fact. Less than 3 years into his term the "community organizer with no foreign policy experience" gave the green light for the SEALS to take out bin Laden. Conservatives seem to have a great deal of difficulty with facts. Mostly because they get in the way of their view of the world and all that happens in it. 'Facts' are necessary to establish an informed intelligent opinion or an effective course of action. Otherwise you end up pulling a Romney and then having to double down on your own stupidity.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. commonsense

    Many details still surfacing. The information age and cell phone video will tell the truth about this whole attack.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dr. Dee

    When the "spring" came to Egypt it was obvious that this was really a ploy by the Muslim Brotherhood to unseat a dictator. They did. The next step in any power take over is to externalize an enemy. The situation in Egypt is simply that. Read your history folks. They have done that in all the countries that they took over. It is a very common ploy. Solidify power by creating an enemy.
    Libya is a slightly different situation but will have the same effect.
    Now, I am not saying which government in Egypt would be better. But, for women, repression may come next.
    It is terrible that someone made a movie like that. But, I would wonder if the men, and yes, they are all men in those streets, would just step back for one single day and take a look around. If they want the Muslim Brotherhood to run things, OK. If they don't, better turn your time to that issue.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Canada

    you're a nut... Everything you just said is not true.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
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