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. jazz

    I don't think the majority of Libyans feel this way. I think they are grateful for what America has done for them but are too afraid of the extremist to say anything. I think that is going to change and the moderate Muslims and Libyans (they can't all be Muslims) are going to start risking there lives to stand up to the extremists.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jimmy

    are you a complete moron? for thousands of years the primary reason for war was dispute of religious believe. What the hell do you think the crusades were about?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. finnoula

    Good reporting, CNN. It answers questions I've had in an organized fashion and is a good summary of the ongoing investigation. I imagine the facts of this hideous attack will take some time. Thanks for getting the query off to a good start.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. GaryGuillermo

    How about this- One of the guys from the hit squad gets mad when he gets kicked off the team and writes a book about killing the US Ambassador.

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


      September 13, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. KB

    Disgusting that in the name of religion these ungrateful self-righteous fanatics cause all this death and destruction. Time to send a few Tomahawks.

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

      If "a few Tomahawks" could solve a problem like this then we wouldn't be a decade deep in Afghanistan.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mlm26

    didn't their Prophet promoted peace, so why is it i always see these people fighting. and its always over something ,to me, that's stupid. i get they are want to be taken seriously, but is fight and killing innocent people the way they want to go? what really gets me is if the rolls had been reverse the u.s.a. wouldn't start a protest or kill people, we might not like what they showed or depicted us or our religion to be, that doesn't mean we'd go out and hurt innocent by-stander who knew nothing about some movie. But maybe that's just me

    September 13, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Fighting? No, you always see them with hatred in their facial expressions. Pure, distilled hate and intolerance. This is taught. Humans are not born hating. This is handed down through generations. This problem is not going to go away soon.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mk54

    We must not allow ourselves to be provoked into overreaction. We must do all we can to protect our people, we must understand who is inciting the violence and what their objective is and in the end we must make sure that justice is done. It seems to me that this is the course Obama is following. He has earned my trust and continues to earn my support.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • dt63


      September 13, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      If you trust Obama then you must trust a python watching your child.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • drbebus

      You trust him after all the wonderful things he said he'd do in the last campaign and followed through? Oh wait...

      September 14, 2012 at 1:06 am | Report abuse |
  8. lgwelsh1

    Most people don't realize that there are millions of people with no formal education in this part of the world. They are brought up a certain way to beleive a certain thing and that's it. Islam is everything to these people, litterally their entire lives revolve around a book. The sad part is the vast majority of these people can't even read what's in the book!

    These people are brainwashed by the fanatics who can read. They are told and forced to live a certain way or else. The lack of education is the real problem.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      In the US the are called intercity voters.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jared

    You mean like the explosive news that the bush administration had warning about 9/11? If successfully proven that the dems are bad we are still only left with a choice between bad and worse this election. Starting a war over what seems to be preplanned conspiracy and nonsense does not seem the way to go hear. This seems like someone, in the face of iraq and afghanistan dying down, looking to secure more contracts.

    wonder why ronmey/ryan back 2 trillion in DOD spending even the DOD does not want.... they wana start wars for their israeli friends under false flag missions!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • rlr1

      Of course they do. Seriously, that is exactly what Willard wants. He pretty much said so when he went to Europe and Isreal during the Olympics.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • serana

      9/11 was a false flag operation – bldg 7 falling down in perfect demolition style when debris fell on one side of it? It should have tipped over at worst. Once again it is easy to fool the american people.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      You realize that a "perfect demolition" on such a building can take months of planning. So you are telling me that a government willing to blow up the two largest buildings in the world, killing thousands, are worried about "perfect demolition?" seems like they'd just blow it up.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • drbebus

      Let me guess, you heard that from some conspiracy theorist YouTube video. Do you talk to your friends about this stuff, I bet they think you are a nut job.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
    • JZ2012

      It's only easy to fool a few of the ones who think they're experts because the watched a michael moore film, and a couple youtube videos. Why dont you do a little research on WTC7 substation, and the design principles used to build a larger building than originally intended on said substation..From they're i advise you to research the tube frame design used in the building, and how that effect the structures ability to hold disproportionate loads. After that perhaps You could put together a small presentation on how every peice of specific fram damage would have effected the load barring properties of the remaining supports, along with maximum load potentioal. From there you can look at the minimal ammount of strctural lose would cause a structural failure, and compair that to the loss of support structures due to damage and the specific effects they would have on adjacent supports. Go on to do calculations on how much mass under acceleration it would take to collapse a single floor under the current loads placed on them, minus the loss of load capibility due to structural damage. You know what ill stop there you figure that out get back to me and ill give you the rest of the assignment that you would need to undertake to make the absurd determination you've made. Just remember when you feel resistance pull the q-tip out.

      September 14, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • danthefisherman

      You are in a world that few real people share.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
    • drbebus

      Just so you know, everyone always wants more $$, including the DOD, so your entire statement is ridiculous.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  10. EE

    Why does no one on CNN say anything about the Christians that have been assaulted and persecuted in Egypt by the Islamists for years?? The silence is deafening. The Coptic Christians have been suffering and no one seems to find it news worthy. Just like the Nigerians that were burned and bombed in their Christian churches Islamist extremist rule the world and the media by fear..

    September 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. EE

    mtm 26 Exactly. If the tables were turned the behavior would be condemned immediately.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. zoyster1

    We must overthrow Obama in November! Don't let this tyranny stand. Get out the vote and vote him out!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Look up tyranny in the dictionary. Realize you don't really know what the word means. Step in front of a Greyhound bus. Thank you very much.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. como1

    While you libs whine about what Romney said, Obama then takes the same position as Romney. News flash the movie had nothing to do with the embassy attach and murders. Obama can't stop campaigning long enough to attend his security briefings to findout if embassy security around the world should be greater than 4 Marines. This is another Obama debacle being covered up by the liberal media.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • drbebus

      Having a strong dislike for Obama I understand that he can't make every security decision that faces America. There's plenty of blame to do around on both sides. Actually, let's just blame Obama, considering the libs are blaming Bush which is even more ridiculous.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
  14. PaxLoki

    Libyan flag

    September 13, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. EE

    every one is afraid of the bullies in the school yard. but not willing to do anything about it

    September 13, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
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