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. ScottCA

    He has evidence you have nothing but imaginative fantasy and your own cowardlice to think for yourself and face that your existence has an expiration date and after that its exactly like before you were born....

    September 13, 2012 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Springfield EMP

      Scott, so where is your evidence that God does not exist?

      September 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mari

    I know this is Monday morning quarterbacking but couldn't they have a couple of armored personnel carriers stationed at embassies and consulates in dangerous locations just in case they need to escape? I just don't see how those SUVs can protect diplomatic staf if they need to leave the grounds. Reminds me of the scene from the movie "Clear and Present Danger" where drug cartel members ambushed and shot RPGs at a US embassy staff convoy and just about everyone except for Harrison Ford was killed. But that's just a movie. I've been in a country where there was an attempted coup d'etat – hearing the machinegun fire and knowing there were raging, lynch mobs roaming around was terrifying. I can't imagine what these poor souls went through. Just horrible. RIP.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • MAR

      And why wasn't security tighter at our embassies on 9/11 Commander in Chief?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Mari

      @MAR

      Huh? I'm not sure why you're addressing me as CIC – I'm just expressing an opinion. Free speech remember? Besides, I doubt POTUS oversees embassy security directly though he could order a change I presume, not to mention the US establishment in Benghazi was a consulate not an embassy and would therefore be less fortified. Perhaps that should change in these dangerous places. Distasteful that people exploit this tragedy to score political points.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
  3. Go_for_it

    What will the United States do about the attack?

    Under Obama? Probably have a beer summit, hold hands with the terrorists and sing Kum Bay Ya and apologize to them.

    Wish we had Ronnie in office.....

    September 13, 2012 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
  4. sasquatch

    "Authorities are still trying to determine how and why a raucous protest outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, turned into a deadly attack. Here are some pieces to that puzzle:"–CNN

    "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."–CNN

    Apparently, CNN sucks at putting puzzles together.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  5. Marsha

    Why not give Romney's response? In a presidential election that is so close, it is important to know where both candidates stand. It is sure interesting that Romney allowed questions from the press, Obama did not. And on a day of national tragedy, Obama goes to Vegas for a fundraiser and late show. And then doesn't have time to meet with Netanyahu? Unbelievable. America, wake up!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. William1956

    American foreign policy is not necessarily what the American people want. People in America were beginning to see what is really going on in the middle east for example what is happening in Syria. In the pictures that I am seeing of the embassies being attacked I see hundreds of Muslims and maybe a hand full of jihadists so who is more responsible for the attack the hand full of jihadists or the hundreds of Muslims? When jihadists attack innocent people get hurt and killed and after 9/11 it got very hard for Muslims living in America and attacking two of our embassies made it that much harder.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Bitmetal

      Jihadists or not they are muslims, and if muslims find it hard to live here after 911 and attacks on the embassies, they have the right to leave. This is not a muslim country and we don't have to respect muslim traditions.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
  7. wandaiwc

    Radical Islamic intimidating the world with their attacks....when are you going to open your eyes to the wrongful actions ...Your Religion is not of G-d....

    September 13, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. msnyder9

    Why in the hell was there not a full security detail there to protect the embasy? in an unstable area there should be 200 marines. How did this happen?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  9. Texan

    We should have peaceful demonstrations either right now or sometime very soon, in front of their embassies in the USA/worldwide or a symbolic march from a Mosque to somewhere famous in each city, to show solidarity in denouncing religious intolerance/inciting hatred, and to show that demonstrations do not have to be violent.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  10. Detect language

    Why was there not a marein dispatment at the embasy/coueslate at Benghazia? Too easy for the "protrsters" to do this. We need to look back to some of of our leaders shouch as Rosevelt, Eisnehoure, Ragen.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
  11. msnyder9

    How many marines do we have protecting the embasies in egypt, saudi arabia, yemen and jordan?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Al Bundy

      Not enough apparently.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  12. Al Bundy

    So much for Islam being a religion of peace, love, etc. etc. etc.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
    • JTower

      So, do you hold all Christians accountable when one or few go beserk? I am a Christian.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Mtheumer

      Remember the Old Testament? Gods wrath, an eye for and eye? Sound familiar?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
  13. cmannn

    What happened was that the American administration, allowing itself again to be lulled into dropping its defences, got a few more of its citizens killed. That's the story here.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Dixon

      nonsense!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
  14. biff

    This is so awesome. The US deserves everything it gets by not following the advice from George Washington 2 centuries ago. I want to see Obama win because nothing will bring me more pleasure than to watch the middle east blow up and the US economy implode under his watch.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
    • TheonlyJGlenn

      Sorry, but economic evidence proves that at least the economy will not implode.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jesus Bunny

    Uh, "blowback" has eight letters, not six.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 am | Report abuse |
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