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. Apachekid

    U.S Ambassader to Libya Chris Stevens showed a lack of informed judgment, just like the Obama administration and the liberals.

    September 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Pete

    A conspiracy theory could be that the Muslims made this film to bring about new conflict after September 11.

    September 16, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Yep

    I totally agree. Anyone daring enough to blow up a naval military ship should have been considered an enemy of the US and taken out or captured.

    September 16, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  4. michael rainey

    Please tell the truth about the death of this outstanding man. We can handle the truth despite the shocking nature of his horrible murder. I know it is not political correctness,but ultimately lives will be saved in the future.

    September 17, 2012 at 5:44 am | Report abuse |
  5. Cindi

    I believe that people kill people. Religion does not kill people. If there was no such thing as religion, people would still be killing people.

    September 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Rob

    Not a preplanned attack? Smells like. . . Looks like. . . Feels like. . . Then it must be!

    September 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. George Taaba

    "Sam Bacile" should be investigated and reprehended as demanded for arousing this choas! it will serve others a lesson not to venture into such acts!

    September 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. GB.

    I do not think that this was about no movie. This was a stern reminder of 9-11 and capture of Ben Lodin. As they keep repeating there will be blood spilled on the American soil. And i think that we are infiltrade enough that it can possible at any time.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. rfile

    Surely Ms. Rice can come up with *** one cell phone video *** of the Ambassador attack.

    Every Middle East protester is recording the riot on their cell phones.

    September 17, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JoeyD

    funny this list of events to rewrite history starts at "On Tuesday night,..."

    CNN should start at "3 days before...

    September 17, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. robert

    CNN is soooooooooooooo in the tank for Obama it is embarrassing If the Islams bomb Paris with a Nuke CNN would lead with Romney said........ CNN and the rest of the main stream media are pathetic.

    September 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mama Mitzi

    This was the FOURTH attack on our Libyan representatives since June, but that doesn't mean we should have increased the security for the anniversary of 9-11, right?

    September 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. psychicstalker

    Just have to love those media people telling people what they need to know about the attack in Benghazi. I think these US officials are dead because they were not protected by our government or by the Libyan government. These US officials knew their lives were in danger before the attack happened because many threats were made beforehand and our government knew about it. Protocol was not followed by the state dept. despite these threats. Now we won't know everything it knew because pursuant to protocol the state department has ordered all classified records be destroyed so anything we learn will only be because the government approved declassification of info they want the media to tell us about. How convenient is that? So, in a nutshell these US officials in Benghazi are dead because despite the threats made the US Government didn't act to protect them, and it probably didn't do so and didn't follow protocol because it wanted a need for certain classified information to be destroyed and anything Stevens knew convenient died with him. It is obvious Stevens trusted the people around him in Benghazi because he lived in a hotel during the civil war and went around the place without security. There were no other protests on the film in Benghazi other than at the embassy so Stevens was the known unprotected US target. This should be investigated and it will be, but it will take forever and I doubt anything will come of it. That is closer to what people ought to know about this attack. At the end of the day these US officials died in service to their country but we are never going to know what the extent of that service was, just that they were sacrificed for whatever that service was. So much for transparency.

    September 19, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bullinda

    Here we go again.. Something is done and it is the USA fault. MUSLIMS around the world has a one track mind, if its is something that is said against ISLAM it is the USA fault. MUSLIMS in this part of the world we have freedom of speech unlike you Muslims in the Middle East, if you say something about Islam and the Government you are liable to be KILLED or have your tongue chopped off. Which one do you prefer??. So you MUSLIMS who emigrate to the west I assume that you want a better life, so get away from the ignorant mentality that is plagued the Muslims in the Middle East. MUSLIMS in the west it is time you show your so called brothers in the Middle East that they are in the Middle ages, Muslim women should get rid of their HIJAB ( a useless piece of cloth) and show the world what you can really do. STOP KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE just because you disagree with them. This really shows IGNORANCE. If you look at the protesters they are the ones from the gutter, nothing to do but make war... it's their way of life. Come on Assad keep doing what you are doing, because if the USA liberate these rebles, the rebels will in turn turn against the USA should something be sain that they do not agree with..... nuff said

    September 20, 2012 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  15. Billy J. Cooper

    hawkins, you need to lay off all that obama cool-aid you are drinking,or is it the funny-grass you are smoking? You are watching to much of chris matthews, do you get the thrill up your leg also?

    September 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
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