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. ronjayaz

    It's time to get out of the Middle East. The US has suffered too much, too long with nothing to show but sorrow. We are a very young country compared to the sophistication of the Islamic countries. We are a simple people; they are complicated. We will defeat ourselves and our spirit by descending into hell to defeat the "infidel." Sound familiar? Enuff, out!

    September 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. An Optimist

    Some details left out of the US reporting that make a difference. 12-16 Libyans also died in the attack trying to defend the Consulate. Some of those were members of a "radical" group. One person ahs been arrested and 3 more are being tracked for arrest. This because Libyan citizens turned them in based on photos taken during the attack. Add these points in and one has a somewhat more positive view of the Libyan people and their revolution.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Victor

    What does this have to do with Hinduism? I'm just curious.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Victor

    Actually, everyone should look at Mohammad A Dar's website. It is a laugh riot- I don't think I've been that confused/amused in a long time.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jed

    We still hold free speech as sacred in the united states and the rest of the world can take a flying leap if they don't like it.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Rick

    I feel sorry for the legitimate Islamists of the world who have to live with the fact that these idiot extremists are demonstrating to the world that they ARE the dangerous threat to the world that the fool who made that film (maybe) tried to depict. I have to say maybe, because I haven't seen the film. I'm sure I would have been offended by it and thought it very "KKK'ish". After the resultant actions by the Jihadists.... I'm not so sure. Blame your own for the world opinion. These TERRORISTS have justified the negative opinions to Islamic rule.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ralph

    Rights?
    We have the right to say what we want.
    We don't have the right to threaten and kill people.
    Why are you bleating about rights? You can't have them if you won't give them to others.
    You don't get respect if you don't give it to others.
    You are dust on my shoe.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. I want to be free

    America was supposed to support free speech around the world by rejecting those who protest or act violently. When ever one exercises his freedom of speech they respond with violence. Free speech should shape the world not violence. The best way to lead is to fight to the end. Unfortunately America never been honest for others. America loves and supports dictators. They choose stability over freedom. The best solution for this violence is to make more of the same films. If you consistently declare your freedom without being silenced by violence you not only fight for your free speech but also you help them achieve freedom.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frustrated bystander

      you should always know that your freedom must never be at the expense of the lives of other innocent people. if you love your freedom so much that you would ridicule armed forces attack that would protect innocent civilians, go and find a hole for yourself where you will not be harming anybody with your free speech.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      I support free speech but I condemn the film as I condemn an antisemitic movie made by KKK. They are free to make it but we are free to be disgusted by it and consider it a filth as it is. According to an aid to the producer, it was created to incite extremists. The fact that the producer falsely accused an Israeli American as the creator, shows the depth of his dishonesty.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
    • EZ

      Freedom of speech does not protect yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater – and inciting violence is malicious – so is "Freedom of Speech" the most important thing, if it is used maliciously to cause killing? and War? Should Nazi propaganda films, KKK films, and other malicious hate-filled speech be protected? Also, distributors can choose what they want to broadcast. Even internet providers are distributors. Forget the laws – what about the people of the earth who oppose this kind of "freedom" – including internet providers – all together boycotting this film?

      September 14, 2012 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
    • cybergrace

      People in America cannot engage in speech that provokes riot, and you know it.

      The U.S./NATO just killed over 10,000 civilians and Africans in Libya over the past year! That is not "humanitarian intervention." That did not help Libyans, but the few that are now filthy rich for helping European and U.S. oil companies get control of the [formerly nationalized] largest oil reserves in Africa. Read "Libyan Winter" by Vijay Prashad and learn what patriotism, democracy and America are REALLY about. No war for Big Oil, bring our troops home. Our money for jobs, not war!
      – A Real American

      September 14, 2012 at 2:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Felicia

      Freedom of Speech does NOT equal killing people!

      September 14, 2012 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
  9. I want to be free

    It does not matter, Ameica shuld not live at the mercy of terrorist. You have to be alert and armed all the time. Increasing security when ever or after someone live is lost is simply non sense.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Juvenal451

    If the attack was planned, then it is not insane to suppose that the attackers were responsible for the making and posting of the film. Who benefits?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Juvenal451

    Don't you think the Cairo legation would have looked a little silly getting on their hind legs about sovereignty, American soil, etc. because of a handful of tresspassing, vandalizing street punks? It's not like Egyptian tank rolled through the gates.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. imakele

    And let me guess which orifice you pulled that story from... It's people like you that add fuel to the fires of rumor and lies; if you only knew how much harm you do by making this stuff up, or by not checking your facts, you'd be less than human if you continued doing it. FOX News? You've got to be kidding...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ted Bundy

    This had nothing to do with ANY movie, It was a planned attack and the movie was a ploy to get the US to apologize rather than drop bombs. The wusses in Washington would much rather apologize, it requires less backbone.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      It appears that terrorists took advantage of the riot to sneak in and murder the embassy personnel. so may be only indirectly the film assisted the terrorist to achieve their goal. Still I find the producer responsible since their goal was to incite so they can benefit form the outcome. I a way the producers and extremists are two sides of the same filthy coin.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Marshes

      And leave it to the liberal press, not to report this.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Li

      I don't know about the movie being a ploy, but the protest certainly was. I'm sure that crowd of protesters was deliberately agitated by Libyan militants to provide cover for their attack.

      September 14, 2012 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Spoken like a true mad man mass murderer.

      September 14, 2012 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
    • bspurloc

      apologize? u mean carl rove.
      drop bombs on WHOM?
      arithmetic much?

      September 14, 2012 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
  14. LibsHateFacts

    BREAKING NEWS CNN AND LIB MEDIA HIDING. THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HAD A 48 HOUR NOTICE OF ATTACK IN LIBYA. CNN will not be able to hide this story by tomorrow. How will the Obama sheep try to explain this explosive breakng news????????????

    September 14, 2012 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • NLB

      Too bad CNN doesn't have a section where we could place bets, because I bet you are WRONG. Let's check back in 24 hours and see if your "fantasy vision" comes true. Surely that will give Fixed News... I mean Fox News time to unearth your ignorant idea.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
    • WoweeZowee

      Breaking News: Mitt Romney released a press report early Friday morning announcing his commitment to personally apologize for America to any and all foreign dignitaries who will receive him as a guest during his upcoming "Apology for America World Tour." According to Romney, he felt the time was right for him to step forward and apologize for America and its values.

      Whoa!

      September 14, 2012 at 5:01 am | Report abuse |
    • sanityisrare

      Don't worry they(media) always find a way to protect their man. It will be tied back to the Bush administration somehow, someway...Madcow; Chrissy ,NYT are working 'round the clock to make the "right" connections

      September 14, 2012 at 7:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Hey you incompetent right wing idiot, even if the President had information on the protests/riots near the embassy 48 hrs in advance, it would have taken another 24 to 48 hours to fly US military personnel on the ground because we don't have any military personnel in Libya or in most countries where we have embassies. The Libyan government was aware of the conflict and it was their responsibility to protect the compound and its occupants. We have thousands of embassies worldwide but these embassies are garded by local authorities as customary and not by US military.

      September 14, 2012 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
    • WAMU GHOST

      British and other foreign news souces are reporting what US news sources are hidding. Apparently there was a 48 hour advance warning of the attack. Apparently we are no better at connecting the dots under the current administration than the previous administration. As a result 4 fellow Americans lost their lives. As an American, I want answers and an accountable government. I thought that was the hope and change we were promised. Who broke the promise?

      September 14, 2012 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
    • WAMU GHOST

      British and other foreign news souces are reporting what US news sources are hidding. Apparently there was a 48 hour advance warning of the attack. Apparently we are no better at connecting the dots under the current administration than the previous administration. As a result 4 fellow Americans lost their lives. As an American, I want answers and an accountable government. I thought that was the hope and change we were promised. Who broke the promise?

      While it may have taken over 48 hours to insert protection, there was plenty of time to fly them out of the country. Corporations and missionary services do this all the time to protect their employees.

      September 14, 2012 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Li

      And the Bush Administration had months of forewarning about the planned attack on the World Trade Center. What's your point? Oh, yeah, that somehow Obama's administration is more incompetent than Bush's was. Not.

      September 14, 2012 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Sorry but Mitt had better things to do when his number was up during Vietnam. Better check his Depends, I think they are full. Partisan hack.

      September 14, 2012 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  15. Felicia

    I do not judge people based off the religion they wish to practice, I wasnt raised that way. BUT I do judge people who kill innocent people out of spite for there religion. There is ZERO reason to hunt people down and kill them for what someone thousands of miles away did. ZERO.

    September 14, 2012 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
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