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. panorain

    Plus the seventh thing people should know. There were no US Marines guarding the consulate. Which is how we usually guard our consulates. In order to avoid ruffling any sensitivities regarding the presence of US soldiers to guard our embassies Hillary decided to hire local security guards instead.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. amazed

    Amazing that we the USA continue to support these countries... It time we severly limit any funds for all except humanitarian aid.. all other should be stopped and used for those in the USA who have been and will be at poverty levels. Our "leaders" and business folks are only and all about the money for themselves... stop the violence and stop the aid/support to everyone.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Alan

    Let me put some facts in the way of your ignorant statements. Clinton had followed up big time on the Cole bombing. Clintons outgoing security team informed the incoming Bush administration of many homeland threats related to Al Queda. The three stooges Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld came into office with a plan to attack Iraq and they didn't want any distractions from that. They completely dropped the ball during the seven months leading up to 9/11. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld let us all down. And you prop them up as masterminds. Please. Get your facts straight. Bush DID NOT KEEP US SAFE. Never forget that thousands of American's died on American soil on his watch. Never forget.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jen

    Obama had nothing to do with the liberation in these countries. And you Kool Aid drinkers should be glad he didnt. Do any of you realize how this (Arab Spring) is bad for Americans. Who do you think is behind it all. Radical Muslims thats who. This is just the beginning of trouble for us. Its time to close the check book. They hate us and they always will. Stop apologizing.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Amanda

    It's an ignorant video, Muslims need to get over it and move on. Why do extremist Muslims always feel to need to create problems?! I truly feel bad for the Muslims that are brainwashed and think this is the right thing to do. There are hundreds of movies out there that target all the other religions, why do Muslims feel that need to always kill and destroy countries because of something so stupid. Another thing, Christians had nothing to do with this in Egypt why are they getting blamed for this?! Why are they suffering for something they had nothing to do with? Muslims are burning down churches and killing Christians because of this movie. Every chance these extremist get, they kill Christians, and for what?! No one knows. This is ridiculous. Whatever happened to the “peace” between Christians and Muslims in Egypt after the revolution? I am an Arab and all of this crap needs to end. My family has been killed by Muslims that have been brainwashed into thinking this was the right thing to do. I personally think the US should just let the Arabs battle it out on their own because clearly getting involved isn’t helping anyone right now. In the end, they’ll beg the US to help them.

    September 14, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sean oconnor

    why dont we send the marines to all the consulates for now on to protect the americans and embassadors inside them. also the middle-east and other countrys that are rioting do not relize that the movie was made be induviduals who just so happend to be from america this steroytype that middle-easterns have of us now do not reflect the views of all the people. and lastly they can riot all they want but when the marines get there they will be sorry

    September 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Francisco

    Let us hope all this blows over. Stupity on both ends! Filmaker and Film critics.. Its just a film!

    September 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. richard wilson

    Speaking about a (safe) room, doesnt seem to be much of a safe room if it doesnt protect from fire or smoke?

    September 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Colin

    "The movie depicts Islam as a fraudulent religion bent on getting rid of nonbelievers."

    Hey...I thought the film INACCURATELY portrayed Islam????

    September 14, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Thugvon

    Thugvon LOL, so how was he protecting people? Another lie by the government.

    September 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. raymondsims

    "Innocence of Muslims," an obama lie

    September 14, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Johnston

    Islam is hypocrisy. Go to Yobe state in Nigeria and find out how they are cleaning the place of Christians. They insult and assault Christians everyday, molesting them and their faith, yet they complain that someone is humuliating their prophet. Wake up world, wake up people. They are hypocrits. I don't know any right thinking person who will join this religion without force or for material things. RELIGION OF PEACE INDEED. We have seen the way you all demonstrated peace in this scenario. NO ONE IS CONDEMNING VIOLENT RESPONSE. YOU NEED TO DEFINE WHAT YOU MEAN BY "PEACE" TO THE WORLD. BUT NOTE, CHRISTIANITY CANNOT AND WILL NEVER BE TOPPLED.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Elaine

      So this is how you portray the Christian religion? You say Christianity will never be toppled, but has it not been toppled by those like yourselves? Islam is so similar to Christianity, I am Christian but most of my friends are Muslims, they were so so confused when they found out that not all Christians are like you. Because you hate. Stop hating and maybe we can save this sorry world. I am American and I mourn for these men, I condemn such inhumane acts of violence and cruelty. I excuse no one's actions. But do not blame Islam. It is people who are like you to blame.

      September 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Cam Gibb

    "Who should Islam Muslims be angry at ?"... for putting on Arab Television days ago, months after an individual made it on his own and posted it to Youtube, with little audiance ... until the Arab TV Station aired it ... a rediculous "Monty Python" style spoof comedy that as other commedy spoofs or "Roasts", are just sadistic and silly entertainment... something obviously not at all acceptable for airing on Arab TV ? Obviously, the anger should be at the TV Station people that allowed it to be aired to so many in middle East. It seems it is the responsibility of all intelligent reasonable Muslims, to mass inform the Mid East public that it was your TV Station that chose to present this to you all. These are the people you should be angry at and demand all responsible be fired from their jobs. The same would happen to any TV or radio airing people here, if they aired anything unacceptable, even as attempt at sadistic humor. I found out from CNN international news website about this. It did not say what Arab TV Station. Anyone know ? From news, it seems Egyption TV Station ?

    September 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aha

      How come instead of cutting the snake head (Bacilli) the actor who made a fortune to kill or to be the main cause of innocent Chris, is to go and accuse someone else he did not make any money from what he did> the main problem is who ever thought of presenting this movie> I remember in the states I was telling one American that the Holocaust is a big lie and we believe it was made so the Jewish can make money to protect them self and get as much money they can from the Americans, he told me please stop because you will end up in Jail for talking about Zionists > so it i freedom only if it is something against Islam???

      September 14, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mark

    This is really a war on Freedom. These terrorists should be destroyed. Anyone who thinks Islam is a religion of peace is deluding themselves. This religion is the biggest threat to Freedom in the world today. Where people are too scared to cristicse Islam. It is time to stop appeasing and to start eradicating.

    September 14, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Eternity

    Any religion can be used as a catalyst for extremist, and sadly religion doesn't kill people. It's the people who take religion and warp it to their own uses allowing them to claim "I do this because my religion or god tells me to do it!" Blame the people don't blame the religion, as religion by itself cannot harm you, nor force you to do anything.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
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