September 13th, 2012
02:12 PM ET

Libya consulate attack: The big unanswered questions

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. We are starting to get a clearer picture of what happened and why, but many more important and larger questions about the attack in Libya that still remained unanswered.

Who exactly is behind the attack and what was their motivation?

The attack - from people with guns and rocket-propelled grenades - came as people were protesting an anti-Islamic video outside the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday night, according to official Libyan and U.S. sources. However, it’s not clear whether the protesters were the ones who attacked.

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.

Sources tracking militant Islamist groups in eastern Libya say that a pro-al Qaeda group responsible for a previous armed assault on the consulate – called the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades - is a chief suspect in the attack.

The sources also note that the attack immediately followed a call from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for revenge for the June death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior Libyan member of the terror group.

Noman Benotman,  president of the counter-extremist group Quilliam Foundation in London, told CNN, "An attack like this would likely have required preparation. This would not seem to be merely a protest which escalated."

"According to our sources, the attack was the work of roughly 20 militants, prepared for a military assault; it is rare that an RPG7 is present at a peaceful protest," Benotman said.

Ex-SEALs, online gaming maven among Benghazi dead

That analysis is supported by some U.S. sources who say the attack on the consulate is believed to have been planned. The sources say the attackers used the protest as a diversion to launch the attack, although the sources could not say if the attackers instigated the protest or merely took advantage of it.

However, one U.S. official told CNN on Thursday that intelligence information indicated that the attack wasn’t premeditated.

Additionally, Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, told CNN Wednesday night that “there is a lot of press speculation for who did this and why, but at this stage it would be premature to ascribe any motive to this reprehensible act.”

U.S. intelligence officials believe that it is very unlikely that the core of al Qaeda was behind the attack, one such official said Thursday. The official did not rule out a group sympathizing with al Qaeda.

The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee said Thursday that the strike "has all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda operation or an al Qaeda affiliate."

"One of the things that we've noticed over the last six or seven months is that al Qaeda in the Maghreb, northern Africa, have said they're really eager to strike northeastern targets. We've seen cells in Libya and Egypt starting to develop," U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, told CNN's "Starting Point."

Libyan Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif said Wednesday that a group of heavily armed militants "infiltrated the march to start chaos.” Libya’s government blamed remnants of the Gadhafi regime, which was overthrown last year.

There was some speculation Wednesday about whether the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had anything to do with the Benghazi assault. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the timing was unsettling for Americans, but it provided a reminder that "our work is not yet finished."

U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana who is a former ambassador to Germany, said he thought the timing couldn't be ignored.

"I think its no coincidence that this happened on September 11," he said.

Was the attack planned and were proper security measures in place?

Wednesday night, U.S. officials told CNN's Suzanne Kelly that there were no actionable intelligence that this attack was being planned. But there appear to be some conflicting reports on the matter. Earlier Wednesday, sources said they believed the attack was planned, and that the protest of an obscure film that mocks Muslim faith was used as a diversion.

State Department Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy, during a briefing to Capitol Hill staff, offered his opinion that the attack was planned because of the extensive nature of the attack and the "proliferation" of small and medium weapons.

Could any of this been prevented?  And what kind of security was in place at the consulate? Given that it was September 11, and there has been unrest in the area, were any measures taken to step up security at U.S. posts around the world? And if not, should there have been?

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday night that he and other officials had never been told of chatter or any indication that something like this was about to happen at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

"We didn't get the warning you would hope to get in an event like this, so we could have prevented the loss of life, and you know, with a horrible tragedy for losing a U.S. ambassador, Mr. Stevens," he said. "We think that we'll be able to go back and take a look. Again, we're going to rescrub all of that."

Rogers said that intelligence officials will check to see whether they missed any signs that the attack was coming.

"But I don't believe so," he said. "I don't believe there was some smoking gun that was missed leading up to this. And there wasn't that kind of chatter that would lead you to believe that this event was happening on this day with this specific target. I didn't see anything like that. I don't think our intelligence services have. But we're going back to make that scrub to make sure we understand fully what the picture was leading up to the event and subsequent to the event."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that security at the Benghazi consulate in advance of the September 11 anniversary was "appropriate for what we knew." She cited a local guard force stationed around the outer perimeters and a "robust" American security presence in the compound.

What is the role of the film in all of this?

Tuesday's protest outside the consulate in Benghazi, as well as a protest 700 miles away at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, seemingly began because of outrage over a YouTube clip of a film that portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, buffoon, ruthless killer and child molester.

Islam forbids all depictions of Mohammed, let alone insulting ones.

There are still many questions swirling about the video.

An actress in the video, who asked not to be identified, told CNN she and the other actors had no idea that they were performing in a movie about Mohammed. Lines about Mohammed and Islam were dubbed in after the movie was shot, she said.

The actors who'd responded to a July 2011 casting call thought they were making an adventure film set 2,000 years ago called "Desert Warrior." That's how Backstage magazine and other acting publications described it.

The 80 cast and crew members released a statement saying said they were "grossly misled" about the film's intent.

"The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer," they said in a statement.

They said they were "shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved," and "we are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred."

The actress said that the character of Mohammed in the movie was named George when it was shot, and that after production wrapped she returned and read other lines that may have been dubbed into the piece.

What happens next?

Since Tuesday's deadly assault in Libya - and a protest the same day at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo - demonstrations, both small and large, have been reported in Israel, Gaza, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Iran and among Muslims in the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir. Security has been heightened at U.S. diplomatic missions worldwide.

While some protesters say they have not seen any of the online film, they were incensed by reports of its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.

Which leads to one of the big questions moving forward: Will the outrage continue to grow?

Regardless of whether the attack on Libya has anything to do with the film, people angry about the movie have flocked to many U.S. embassies. And with Muslims' Friday prayers tomorrow, there was some question about whether there could be an escalation of violence.

"I don't know if it's a likelihood, I'd say it's a possibility," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham said in Kabul. "I hope the message out of the mosques will be one of restraint; I know there will be many messages like that because we've been through this. In other places the messages will be more extreme, we hope those places will be as isolated as possible and that people will realize this is the work of a very, very small group of people who are able to use modern tech to spread what they do more widely, but it doesn't represent anything really except disrespect. And overreacting to it is, in a way, rewarding this or responding to this disrespect."

The other big question is exactly how the United States will respond to the attack and what impact a response could have in diplomatic terms in some countries currently reeling from unrest.

We know the United States is deploying warships and surveillance drones in its hunt for the killers of the four U.S. diplomatic staffers, and a contingent of 50 Marines has arrived to boost the security of Americans in the country.

The drones are expected to gather intelligence that will be turned over to Libyan officials for strikes, a U.S. official said. Two American destroyers also are en route to the Libyan coast, U.S. officials told CNN. Both the USS Laboon and USS McFaul are equipped with satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles that can be programmed to hit specific targets.

The move "will give the administration flexibility" in case it opts to take action against targets inside Libya, one senior official said. As of late Wednesday, the McFaul was making a port call on the Mediterranean island of Crete, while the Laboon was outside Gibraltar, a few days from Libya.

It seems clear that whatever action is taken, strong rhetoric from U.S. officials indicate they will do whatever possible to find those responsible for the attack.

"We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act," U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday. "And make no mistake, justice will be done."

soundoff (506 Responses)
  1. Paul Martin Foreign Correspondent

    "MAD DOGS and muslim fanatics out in the midday sun ! America and the WEst have been too kind for too long to those imbeciles who would destroy us for the slightest reason ! Time to abandon our relationships with them altogether and let them drown in their miserable sharia wildernesses !

    September 13, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. bobbrooklyn

    Its very sadden that muslims are acting up in such a violent manner that is not part of prophet muhammed SAW teaching of islam he never preach violent and there is no verse or Sura in the Quran from Albaqra to wannerse there is no such thing islam is all abt peace and thats what Islam teaches us so this kind of violent behaviour is not ISLAMIC but Evil because the prophet never condoned it so what kind of ISLAM or religious war like are they fighting for? Or if they are following the teachings of prophet muhammed SAW who never condoned violence so whose teaching are they following?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tarzan

    The US Gov't is broke, borrowing the money, taxing us to death, and giving away billions of dollars to Afghaistink, Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Egypt. Go figure. Hang on to your guns and ammo.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary S.

      U May need those Guns & Ammo sooner than U think if the Black Panthers have their way, did U read on their Website they R calling for all blacks to kill the white people & for them to go into the hospitals & throw bombs into the nurseys & kill all white babies, Their is no difference in the Muslims over in Libya & the Black panthers, the panthers R forming their own Army to fight & Kill the Whites , But I wonder what that means for the ones that are married to blacks, white woman & black Man White man & black woman , These R Evil people Just like the Nazi killing the Jews

      September 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mk54

    What will all the Obama bashers do if they actually win the election? The likely answer is that they will turn on Romney and with a vengeance and bash him. You see, they just have to blame somebody, and they don't own a mirror.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • gregbuls

      No need to blame Romney. One look around the world says it all – liberalism ruins everything it touches. Taxes are sky-high in Europe, but they're as screwed as we are. Liberals will always promise the moon and deliver ruin.
      By the way, CNN – get on the stick. The news is out – we were warned way ahead of time about this attack, long before the video was released, and President Obama did nothing. Get off your knees long enough to report the truth.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mark

    I don't know what the GOP is complaining about now, good cool head Mr. President.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      Yeah, he has a cool head. Maybe too cool.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Doug

    I dont get why the press dont show pictures of the ambassador, being carried by fanatics. Like they showed former leader of Libya, smells like a save face, who them support in Libya and Syria. The members of Libyan government arent governing the streets, they have no control over well trained militiants.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Smokey

      The ambassador was carried to the hospital by sympathetic Libyan civilians, not by his attackers, that would not make any sense, why would they take him to a hospital after trying to kill him? Most Libyans appreciate America and what America has done for them, especially in Benghazi. Look at all the people in the photo gallery denouncing these attacks, which were clearly the work of al-qaeda affilitated extremists.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jack

    Now we know there was a 48 hour notice and no one did anything?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • gregbuls

      CNN won't be reporting that any time soon. It conflicts with their narrative that Obama is God.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. patrice ropars

    how about getting the hell out of the middle east

    September 13, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Ron Paul said what?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      And take all our money and military equipment with us. Except keep a strong presence in Israel to support them in their survival.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. adf


    September 13, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Lee

    We must retaliate with FORCE!!!! Not three or four years of diplomacy & sanctions, not troops on the ground, we shouldn't pay them to act like they are on our side on TV...I'm talking about making the Middle East look like the surface of the Moon....Sorry but that's how I feel....

    September 13, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      You don't need force .. you need cash. As in STOP GIVING EVERY MIDDLE EAST COUNTRY BILLIONS!

      September 13, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      We wouldn't have to even contemplate force if things were done as preventative measures to ensure that no one would dare attack that embassy. Now I understand that the troops did not even had loaded weapons. If that's true – then, excuse the expression, but W T F?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Hundheim9

    Steve1963 – I think you are on to something there – the actors were dubbed into thinking it was a movie about a desert warrior. Then the movie is released on YouTube with changes made that the actors were not aware would happen just in time for the 9-11 anniversary. All to stir more hatred towards everything that is American and everything that represents the freedom that Americans have...

    September 13, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. sybaris

    Of all the stupid things to fight about......religion.

    Christians and Muslims........ it's like two 5 year old boys arguing over who's better, Spiderman or Batman.

    Religion and the belief in god(s) is a filthy perverted disease of the mind

    September 13, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      BATMAN! DUH lol

      September 13, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martin

      Batman obviously

      September 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. John B

    State Department Spokeswomen Victoria Nuland stated regarding security was "appropriate for what we knew" "A local guard force stationed around the outer perimeters and a "robust" American security presence in the compound. How many people equals a "robust security presence. My understand was there was very few US military or US security gurard.

    John B

    September 13, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lee


    September 13, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Leigh2

    Patrick in Wisconsin

    Where the Hell did you read that those attackers belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you even know how to READ?
    But no Muslim Brotherhood folks are rioting in the streets against us? Riggghhhhhtttt......

    September 13, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
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