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. chris

    COME ON PEOPLE , the roits has nothing to do with the movie or the disrespect of the muslim faith..this is all about US the UNITED STATES. ...over this past months we have been airing our dirty laundry..we have shown the world how disfuctional our GOVERNMENT has become and how divide( DEM & REP )we are as a LEADING i say COME ON MAN!!

    September 14, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  2. Rob

    CNN is the second worst subjective view on world news, only msnbc is worse. either way i would appreciate it if they reported news instead of bowing to their false idol obama and reporting mtv worthy garbage

    September 14, 2012 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  3. Maxwell

    Sad that there is no mention of the Libyan soldiers who gave their lives protecting the consulate during the attack

    September 14, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. John Johnson

    This report appears to contain factual errors. Better reports indicate that the terrorists attacked a separate building known as a "safe house" after attacking the consulate, which would imply much coordination. Further, why was Mr. Stevens at this consulate in the first place, and how did the terrorists know he was there? CNN, you have a lot of work to do to get details that our government seems reluctant to provide.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Sete

    Why didn't they send in air support? Our planes were 10-15 minutes away? Why did this happen for 4 hours? Did someone allow this to happen? And we have drones and satelites everywhere. There's no way our side didn't know this was happening. Obama should be packing his bags.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mark

    All of you people sound like that guy down in Florida that killed the kid returning from the store with a hoodie on! Because he wore a hoodie does not mean that he is a thug! Kill first, ask questions later! It was alqueda that did that, not the people of lybia! All the countries need to band together to rid the world of these radicals that only want to kill! On the other hand, we shouldn't have to back Isreal as we do, and we should be treating all Arabs, excluding the radicals, as we would want to be treated ourselves! You people really need to look at the underlying issues of why they are so friggin radical that they will blow themselves up in order to kill! Bush started these wars and we do not need another! Our country is going broke because of this and all you think about is BOMB THEM ALL! Fools!

    September 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedric Boyd

      The GOP has some nerve attempting to blame Obama's foriegn policy on what's happening in the Muslim world. Firstly lets remember the birthers, the Obama is Osama, Obama is Muslim, GOPers and if Obama is credited for the wrong of today, he should be credited for the policy that has brought about liberation of millions of oppressed people. Those people normally would be shot down. Freedom is breathing within the protest even if it is against us. You can't have it both ways, only in the bubble can both be true.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • RAD

      you sound like the fool.. Bush didn't start 9/11 the radicals did..and i bet you were proud like everyone else when bush made his retaliation.. only to later on change how you feel about it..he didn't start the war but like any exemplary leader of our country he did something about it he did his job and everyone was proud.

      September 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. AndyM

    McClatchey News is reporting that, according to a Libyan who was a guard at the consulate, there were no protests going on before the attackers descended on the consulate.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dave

    Not more than 6 months? How long does that dummy GWB need to get started in his job? Maybe we should have elected someone who could have started on day one.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joe Walker

    THE ATTACK ON THE CONSULATE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MOVIE!! It was a planned Al Qaida assault to coincide with 9/11. You do not have 400 gunman mobilized with a well crafted assault, using mortars, rockets & small arms, spontaneously arising from a 'mob'. Why is the MSM perpetuating the MYTH that this attack was related to the Movie and the protest in Egypt? Because they want to shield the FACT that the government had warnings of an imminent attack and dropped the ball AND to deflect from the MSM's presidents support for the "Arab Spring" and the throwing under the bus of long term allies in the region.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Richard

    OK these 6 things might be important to know but come on there's really important questions that need to be asked and answered. Given the violent area, knowing of jihadist training camps in eastern Libya, 9/11 was upon us and there was not a contingent of armed Marines on location to protect this embassy and the Americans working there? They were sent in some 4 or 6 hours later, after the overrun of the facility and death? Who dropped the ball here? Someone asleep at the wheel? Or just very poor leadership coming from the White House and/or State Department? The damage has been done, now we should all demand answers to theses questions and not wait 6 months for answers.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rose

    Four hours they were under attack, noone came to help and they were murdered. NOONE CAME! Now security is being beefed up around the world? The article said it all..."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." Al Qaeda's behind this, it was planned 9/11 and it's spreading. The media needs to stop this sideshow excuse of a film.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Joe Walker

    If Muslims were to disappear from the face of the Earth, 4/5 of the bullets would stop flying and 9/10 of the bombs would never go off. The World's average IQ would instantly rise much higher, and everyone would rejoice...

    September 14, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. heliocracy

    The only thing to know is that religion makes people crazy and violent and should be wiped from the face of the earth.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • asdf

      So get rid of the first amendment? You're an idiot... it's extremists, not all muslims.

      September 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. David

    I understand the current Libyan government has arrested four Christian for the attack on the compound and are planning to burn a church in reprisal, just as soon as they can find a church that is still standing in Libya

    September 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Andy

    Let's be honest with ourselves guys. The question is, Why is United States of America the most target in the world?
    Going back to Bush era, The first Bush and the second Bush, America image has been destroyed due to lack of respect to other foriegn nations by this two people, and this will continued to be if someone like Mitt Romney comes in.
    After they mess up our country. Now enjoying life with there own family covered by the best medical care in the world. Thousands of our young men and women lost there lives becaouse they were decieved to fight a wrong war. This will not stop if this jack ass get into power again. A shoe was been thrown at the President of the United States. It was a complete embarrasing to the United States. They mess up our economy to zero level and now pointing fingers, attacking and blaming the present President of the United States.
    Does this guys thinks we are fools... It's a big shame if we are not speaking the truth guys.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
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