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. Fatima

    I am really sad to see the world going bad. Been Muslim or chretians we all belonging to god at the end. One crazy man
    Destroyed all by making this movie. Hope to see peace soon. America is working hard to help people all over the world
    They don t deserve to be treated like that. May god be with us all. Been Muslim is very important for Muslim
    We said don't insult my religious and my parent and I will love you for ever right now it is sad for everybody and specially for our children that are crowing, learning from us. We should give them peace and confidence to love the world and respect each one religion.

    September 14, 2012 at 3:31 am | Report abuse |
  2. Carla Marks

    One thing that Americans tend to forget is that yes, Christians too can protest idiotically about this sort of thing. Normally there is no one killed - but remember all the protests against "The Last Temptation of Christ" which depicted Christ choosing not to die on the cross and have a normal family and also how the National Endowment for the Arts was nearly defunded back in the 80s because Christians were upset about a sculpture that had a crucifix stored in urine ? And at the time they were freaking out and protesting, they did not consider it "freedom of speech" ... but others of us did. And this film is the same – rubbishy trash – but it is freedom of speech. It is crap if you believe in that religion, but if your religion is great it should withstand such silly attacks on its own merits. These religions if they are so great, do not need people running around killing others or even having violent protests just because someone else makes fun of the religion – a good true religion shines through on its own moral values and speaks for itself. It cannot be damaged by such silly means. So stop overreacting ... stop being an extremist attached more to dogma than to the actual real message in your religions. That goes for Christians as much as Muslims.

    September 14, 2012 at 4:19 am | Report abuse |
  3. hmmm

    II just hate the fact that US gets involved and all the confusion in middle east shift their anger to U.S.... U.S. isn't responsible, it's their problem, but they use U.S for their political advantage...

    September 14, 2012 at 4:36 am | Report abuse |
  4. Patty

    Hey CNN, don't let your liberal bias be obvious to all. Please note on your article "Six Things to know about Attack that killed Ambassador Stevens" that Item 3 paragraph 6 CNN states that it cannot identify the filmmaker, yet picture number seven states that the film maker was an Israeli-American. Can you please tell your readers why you would incite the Muslims by calling someone you clearly state you cannot identify as an Israeli-American? Just thought I would ask

    September 14, 2012 at 5:02 am | Report abuse |
  5. WoweeZowee

    Romney tried to claim that Obama was "sympathizing" with the attackers, based on a statement (1) which wasn't even sympathic; (2) which was issued by agency officials (a) without Obama's knowledge or consent, and (b) at a time when they had good reason to want to diffuse anger among Egyptians; and, most importantly, (3) which was issued HOURS BEFORE the attacks took place.

    Romney made his statements in front of a podium at around 10:30pm. That isn't the typical hour for planned remarks, unless those remarks pertain to breaking news. Romney was not conveying new facts. He wasn't offering condolences to the victims (at the time he spoke, he knew at least one American was dead). He was not expressing solidarity with Americans around the world. His sole motive for speaking was to take advantage of what he thought was an opening to bash the President.

    Romney not only exhibited extremely poor taste. He spoke before the facts were in, causing him to make factually inaccurate and inflammatory statements, and to thereby reveal that he is completely lacking in the good judgment Americans need to be able to expect from the commander-in-chief of the largest military in the world.

    Mitt is getting extremely desperate. He's being slaughtered in the polls, and the "enthusiasm gap" has been shrinking.

    September 14, 2012 at 5:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jack

    What private security firm did they work for?
    Why is this not being reported?

    September 14, 2012 at 6:20 am | Report abuse |
  7. Jack

    you need to go to college and learn more.
    you are off base on so many levels.
    actually never mind. I think its too late.
    Study harder, theres more to your world then you presently know

    September 14, 2012 at 6:23 am | Report abuse |
  8. Marshes

    Then, police your own. Your silence and unwillingness to address these extreme factions is the same as condoning their action, for it is done in his name.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:29 am | Report abuse |
  9. Al-Sharif

    No Ex-cuse for what is happening, these crowds here in the middle east and north africa will be a big threat even to our own goverment, as the war against terror goes on another danger emerges, brainwashing crowds to perform violent protests.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:30 am | Report abuse |
  10. nc1965

    The analogy of Religion.

    Their is an invisible man in the sky looking down on you and billions of people. Watching everything that you do, making a list and recording it in the book of life.

    And if you go against his will, even for a misdemeanor like not acknowledging his existence (though you are a good person), you will be d a m n e d to hell for eternity to burn in a lake of fire with gnashing of teeth, no water to quench your thrust, no rehabilitation, no appeal process, no parole hearing.....

    Yet, he loves you.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:51 am | Report abuse |
  11. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Everything you said is total garbage. First and foremost, years from now the American history books would show that President Clinton and President Obama were two of the most progressive, intellectual and successful Presidents in US history who actually stabilized, strenghten and improved our country economically, politically and socially. Unfortunately, the American history books will also show that GWB who was not elected but appointed bu the US Supreme Court was the most illiterate, incompetent and flawled whatever in US history. Furthermore, GWB's second term was as illegitimate as the Iraqi war because his first term was determined by the Supreme Court. By the way, you're missing an "S" in your name.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
  12. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Now I don't hate Assad anymore. Assad is a hero and I hope he remains in power in Syria till his old age.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:32 am | Report abuse |
  13. FedUp2Much

    Drones? C'mon! There are so many differing reports as to how many attackers and the reason for the attack. But one thing is certain. Obama went to Las Vegas to raise money for himself right after this happened. How about staying in Washington and dealing with the mess in the Middle East? Very typical, I'm surprised he didn't go out to play golf!

    September 14, 2012 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  14. Fred

    It saddens me to see people so engrossed with a politician that they blindly follow Obama's every word and the medias daily narrative. Sounds an awful lot like a cult. No telling what would happen if he ask his followers to jump off tall bridges, but I bet we would have a huge mess to clean up.

    September 14, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
  15. stanford

    You just gave the never elected Baby Bush a free-pass on 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in history! It was bush who ignored repeated warnings from his own FBI and CIA advisors; then he left town for another vacation just to clear brush on The Texas Ranch. He kept a bottle of gin behind every big rock and Secret Service agents around to help him find his way back to The Old Bunk House.

    September 14, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
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