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. good on U mate

    1. senseless
    2. senseless
    3. senseless
    4. senseless
    5. senseless
    6 oh yes, senseless

    September 14, 2012 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jared7200

    Is this article suppose to pass as the "Keeping It Real" segment? Really, I could have gotten this same article from the white house statement.
    Come On guys, your suppose to be journalist, not middle men!
    I get more facts from the TMZ gossip groups out there, and we know that's junk!
    Im going to back to read the story on Kate's photos, at least there is some journalism involved in that story!

    September 14, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  3. reporter jones

    oh hi CNN, I thought I would give you this new tip since I didn't see it on any of your pages and I know that you are dedicated to being an objective news source....professional journalists.....oh yeah, you might want to explore the reports that the US knew about the embassy attack before it happened. I thought you might have something on story on your new page, but then I remembered how busy you guys are with Obama's reelection campaign, so I thought I would alert you. I'm sure, once the facts are revealed, you will publish.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
  4. J Walk

    The world is going into turmoil. Americans are hated now, more than ever. But, yet we still send them billions of $$ to be our "friends".

    We cannot turn our backs ... immeidate action and response are needed to show that WE will not tolerate American citizens being killed for some fantanical belief. America we need to stand TALL..

    America, what does it take? Sweet talk and $$ make us the laughing joke of the world.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • TheTraveler

      "Stand tall" ... now there's a good plan ... We can defete our enemies with movie metaphors ... Maybe get the Rock to do a cameo ...

      September 14, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • TheTraveler

      "Stand tall" ... now there's a good plan ... We can defeat our enemies with movie metaphors ... Maybe get the Rock to do a cameo ...

      September 14, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • sirock

      J Walk your right if we appear weak it will only enable these animals with our presents Governments position to bad the libiots can't see that

      September 14, 2012 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • baman

      Remove all US presence from islamic countries, remove all islamists from the US, and arm Israel to the teeth. Remove any nuclear capability from any islamic countries. We have to recognize we and the rest of the world are at war with islam.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • 40 acres

      Are you all really this fearful or are you (like Romney) simply taking any opportunity to badmouth the President? While these demonstrations are awful has anyone looked at the pictures of them? At each location there are at most a couple hundred protestors in the crowd. This is in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands that demonstrated against the Egyptian President (and yet I hear right wing cries that we should have supported him). The size of these crowds is NOT growing over time as previous demonstrations have (like the one over the Danish cartoons). Get real people, these are a very small fraction of troublemakers and their cause is not popular. Stop the hand wringing.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Uhhhh...Traveler?

      The movie was WALKING TALL. Stand tall is a military metaphor we used when standing watch. Just FYI

      September 14, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jared7200

    No doubt!!! We're probably waiting for another interview with some other Limp person!

    Thats why he didn't respond!

    September 14, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jon

    @blah blah whatever, it may take that long to get military personnel to Lybia, however, It doesn't take 24 to 48 hours to get the ambassador out of Lybia. IF the administration knew prior and ignored the warnings they are responsible for the deaths.

    @Li, if you are equating this mess to Bush's mess then you must think that president Obama is as incompetent as you think President Bush was.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  7. Tired

    How many US flags have been burned? How many riots in the US against muslims?

    How long will it take us to take what we learned on the playground and apply it to our lives? When you hide and apologize to a bullie they will beat you up more. A consulate in a foreign country is considered soverign land. We should act like it.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Doc Knowitall

      If you read into the Justice departments actions to date, this may just be an crisis being used to help squash free speech in America. Why else would the US Justice department be investigating the death and the movie's producer ?

      September 14, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • br549

      I could not agree more!

      September 14, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  8. o

    There you go again, confusing fiction with facts. Maybe is't not just a Romney problem, it's a GOP problem with parsing facts and evidence and jumping to conclusions prematurely. I don't really care about Obama, but can't stand the lying coming from these fringe Republicans who just make $h!t up.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  9. Doc Knowitall

    You forgot
    #7 The fact that this is a protest about a movie is a lie.
    #8 That the state department had 48 hours warning and did nothing.

    The media needs to stop fanning the flames about a movie and stop covering for an failed Administration.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Dad

      BINGO! All of these "protests" were terrorist attacks & after the "investigation", this will be confirmed. If we can get drones to look for these killers, why can't we have the drones protecting our embacies w/Hell Fire missles & lanch them on these idiots, as NONE of them were there protesting peacefully. No appoligies, no warnings, just return them to allah each & every time they harm/threaten Americans.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. kmwf

    And yet, when a depiction of Christ crucified, upside down and in urine, was publicly displayed in NYC, despite the public outcry against such blasphemy, the media and our courts said "free speech, free Christians shut up and sit down". Ditto for Madonna's wearing of an upside down crucifix between her breasts because "she likes having a man hanging between her breasts". How is this current film worse than the blasphemous way Christ is daily portrayed in our media?

    September 14, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ratt

    If this attack was not co-ordinated, and done by a rogue band of crazies as CNN and the Media is claiming, then why were the Islamist Terrorists waiting at the Embassies's 'safe-house' with AK47's, grenades and RPG's ? Something's not quite right about your version of the events CNN. And, as of this moment the Brits are saying Team Obama and Hillary knew of the warnings 48 hours ahead of the attacks, but Hillary couldn't get Obama off the campaign trail. I would be willing to bet before the day is out ABC, NBC, CBS, NYT, PMSNBC, NPR, Time and Newsweek all carry this same version of events which basically means they are carrying Obama's water.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
    • noll

      The media in America bows to their God Obama. The dumb ones follow along. The smart ones who can use their heads though are looking and feeling that something is amiss. Have you noticed that ABC, CBS, NBC nightly news all have commercial breaks at the same exact time? They all same basically the same things. It is as if they share talking points. Now after hearing them doing exactly that in Jacksonville before the Romney news conference we are beginning to understand that their really is a conspiracy. CNN is amongst the enemies of our great country. NBC personnel should be arrested for treason. How many secrets have been kept to keep this president perched up? Gone are the days of Watergate when our media actually investigated. Now Fox investigates and they are called Haters.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • 40 acres

      There is something a bit off about your version Ratt. Where on earth did you get the impression that this was a US Embassy "safe house"? It was the US Consulate for the area. Those are not very effective if they are secret locations now are they? Perhaps in your zeal to find fault with anything Obama you mistook reading about the "safe room" that the Americans took refuge in during the attack as a "safe house". Try again, they are not the same thing.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  12. Tired

    Anyone else have days where restraint seems very over rated?

    September 14, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  13. Evoxx

    Why are you not including the fact that the safe house was attacked immediately after the embassy? This shows clearly that the attack was planned with clear targets using leaked information.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  14. jschmidt

    And his security detail? No Marines assigned. The 2 killed were sent after the rioting. US had 48 hours notice of an attack but left these guys hanging. After Qadaffi fell, 15,000 MANPADS, surface to air shoulder fired missiles are unaccounted for. The US was supposed to secure them. Another failure by the Obama Admin.
    In Cairo, the amabassador sends out an apology letter, standard procedure for any slight on Islam and then doesn't allow the Marines to have ammo.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  15. jim

    It's a shame that we are the ones people beg for help whenever they want their own governments gone. The movie was crap. The critics here would have buried it. I defend the right of any American to spend their money to make movies and artistically say what they want, and the public to ridicule it for the junk it was, and leave it at that. Truly free people vote with their feet and walk away. We don't kill, burn embassy's or movie theaters because a bad movie addresses a subject we don't like. Funny how a small group of extremists can fire up a crowd to accomplish the damage they want to do to us. Further proving the sheep of the world are always willing to be led...

    September 14, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
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