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. Albert

    These people hate American regardless of a film or depiction of their Prophet. Our nation needs to recognize this sooner rather than later. The Islamic world respects force, they are simple minded creatures. We must dominate them rather than play the game by their rules. This is proven by thousands of years of conflict in the Middle East. There will never be stability in that region so long as poverty and lack of education infect the Middle East.

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

    Lybia should have protected our embassy. We certainly would have hell to pay if anything happened to someones embassador here in the US

    September 13, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. EE

    Zoyster WORD!! before we have no country left

    September 13, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. sinman

    Why don't you report that President Obama hasn't been attending security briefings? He was only focused on his fundraising, campaigning and partying with his Hollywood buddies. No excuse for this lapse. Then, the news media is only focusing on Romney for saying something totally appropriate!! Absolute disgusting!! I have no respect for the so-called news media. They are strictly Obama supporters and slant anything and everything to make excuses in his sorry, imposter of a president of this country.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steven B

      Because reporting that would be an outright lie?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      It would be interesting to know where this newest right wing lie came from. Fox? Limbaugh? Look t this logically and analytically. Obama has done more to neutralize terrorist than any other President in history. If you think he is not fully briefed of security of US citizens then you are just trying to be stupid. Hey, on September 11th 2001 your golden boy allowed terrorist to kill nearly 3,000 people in the US! NOW lets talk security fool.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sue

      And you know for a fact what Obama is doing? Do you work t the White House? Do you have a copy of his agenda? What you do is listen to stupid radio hosts that think they know everything about everything. They do not know for a fact what anyone at the White house is doing, Just assuming they know everything. Until you have facts from his secretary giving you day to day details. Don't make statements you do not have the facts to back you. Guess what the media guess' also

      September 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jason tankersley

    Why do we care so much about how ignorant over sensitive zealots react to a u tube video or any other privately produced propaganda. If these religious ignorant individuals frenzy and destroy what little they have to begin with because of their over sensitivity and small minded beliefs then why are we feeding them? If they are so zealous they are unable to come to grips with the fact that this is one mans take and not a countries attack on their religion and if they have such lack of faith in their all mighty "god" that he can't take care of himself then let these people eat each-other like the Donner party. This is the essence of darwinism.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • jackola

      Unfortunately it is impossible to isolate those extremists who do these things (they are spread all over). Until we find a way to isolate them, there is nothing we can do except vent like you did.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sinman

    It won't be reported by the media who is hell-bent on protecting Obama.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunshine100

      Huh? Sorry you didn't comprehend this news article. Guess your spaceship took a wrong turn near pluto, the non-planet.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. EE

    Oh please. Newd media bending over to be sure to never offend Islam. Let me explain to you why Christ Jesus is sacred to Christians and he gets insulted every day .
    Do we have to bow to ignorance?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mary

    Your babbling doesn't help draw anyone to your website pal...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. sinman

    Trying to blame Bush again? As you will recall, Clinton didn't pass on the intel to Bush as he should have. Remember, Clinton and his group were too focused on trashing the offices and stealing computer keys, etc. So classy, huh!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin3g

      That's an urban legend: Amazing anyone still believes Rovian lies. Fool.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. twin1994

    Islam has a strong history of tolerance.....said the empty chair,

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

      "Islam is a great religion, a religion of peace"...said the enpty chair...

      Clint eastwood had the 'empty chair' dead on!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jason

    This is Obamas fault he would have known this may happen if he went to his security briefings! Of course it was because of 9-11 !! Do you left-wing media really think Americans are that stupid to belive it was all because of some nobody with a movie trailer?? How many times did Obama spike the football at the DNC convention ?? The Muslim radicals were chanting Obama we are all Osama's !! it was 9-11 and out loser Prez and Clinton along with Wieners muslim brotherhood wife ignored the intel!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex peterson


      September 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jason tankersley

    try evolution! science is the only truth. not fairy tales from ignorant and un evolved beings

    September 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • i12bphil

      Science isn't even remotely the only means by which truth is gained. You're sadly uneducated and it stands out like a thumb stuck by a hammer.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Samuel Kephart

    To all Islamist Radicals in the Middle East and here in the US: اذهب الحمار مشاه

    September 13, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dynamic

    I just don't understand why there are "private" security forces guarding public officials. I can only imagine they cost a lot more than government military security forces and the obvious deduction is that this is in order to inflate the costs of guarding public officials in order to escalate profits of private security corporations. Seems purposefully deceitful and immoral to flush taxpayers' money down to fat-cat CEO's who only want more wars and profits. #notourcountryanymore

    September 13, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dougp

    If you are talking about the report in the independent it's junk, riddled with mistakes. They even misidentify two of the dead as marines. Unnamed sources, possibly not even american, say there was a 'warning?' They get warnings all the time. If this warning exists what was it? Could have been total junk.

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