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. peace1975

    If Islam is truly a peaceful religion, why do they act this way? Killing people who are not even related to the film makers? destroying properties and other crazy things that they have done, that does not make sense at all.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kris

    no it wouldn't.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mary

    I find it odd only "protests" against this film were at the American embassy... no other location.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Minerva

    Civilized people don't kill people over a video. Killing in the name of religion is just an excuse to kill. A video has nothing to do with it. The people making the video may have been bigots but they were exercising something the Islamic murderers will never understand: freedom this country allows them to be the bigots they are.

    Unfortuately, the Internet is not the great equalizer we like to believe it is. Not everyone has the freedom to express themselves without serious repercussion from those who are too ignorant to know the difference between individual expression as that of the people who made the video and that of the US government which had nothing to do with creating it.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jason L

    The crimes committed by these muslim terrorist should be seen as an act of war against the United States.
    US embassies were stormed and burnt supposedldy because of some obsecure video. (that was made for fun). But for Muslims they want to dictate how every country conducts themselve and murder innocent lives everywhere when they dont like how others behave. Its time to stand up and put an end to these disgusting people. The US President should order a full out stirke.
    sympathies go out to those who died while innocently doing there work

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • josh

      i am a Muslim and those so called Muslims are idiot animals. They do not belong to any religion or even to world. Yes of course the video is disrespectful when you look at it but their act does not justifies it. Please do not think about all Muslims are same. For example People in Turkey is really sad and mad to their act as much as you do. They took lives of Innocent people for nothing. I hope they will get what they deserve really soon.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patchygroundfog

      So to avenge the innocent US workers you want a full strike that will kill innocent Libyans who had nothing to with the squad that staged the attack? Or start a full-scale religious war between the US and pretty much every Muslim in the Middle East - Egyptian, Yemeni, Sudanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Afghan, Pakistani, Syrian, Saudi and on and on. That's likely what Romney would do. I have a better idea ... A surgical strike using Tomahawk missiles aimed right at the foreheads of people that think like you ...

      September 13, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ginger dorsey

    Just wondering, what if the newest prophet Monson (Morman) started the U-tube video insulting the newest (Islamic) prophet Muhammad in a turf war type battle over where the Holy Land will be, middle east or SLC, Utah? They seem to be the most intolerant to each other. Just pondering possibilities...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Penny Wright

    The movie was made by an Egyptian, not an American.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Ssz

    Shame on him who made this film

    September 13, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. American Atheist

    So what if the Obama Administration knew about the attack 48 hours in advance. Attacking President Obama on this issue is clearly racist. So is any criticism of the NDAA. And the trillion dollar deficit.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doubtful

      I highly doubt there was any information that specific. Even this article quotes the House Intelligence Chariman, Mike Rogers (R) saying that they never received any chatter about anything happening in Benghzai and that this was a preventable event. That, of course, doesn't make this event any less tragic.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ralph Nadar

      just watch what our "president" does about this – it will be nothing

      September 14, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
    • steve1963

      How is criticizing this inept and self-promoting disaster of a President be classified as racist? Oh yeah, you are an atheist. Why are you even commenting since you believe there is not a god? Even those degenerate radical Islamics claim they serve their "allah". We, Christians, serve the real GOD though. You will get to meet him one day, too. We all will.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Tammy Lozano

      I'm betting the movie producers were in contact with the terrorist cells and certain republicans. The movie producer already stated the movie was political and not religious and if this is true the producers knew what this would do to the current administration. Funny... how Mittens popped up with a speech condemning Obama within 24 hour of attack. weirdo

      September 14, 2012 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary1972

      Like the theories going around that Bush & Cheney knew of 9/11 attack but nothing about it?

      September 14, 2012 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  10. Paul

    1. Submerge an image of Christ in urine and photograph it. The result? An award including taxpayer dollars. (Google: Andres Serrano, Pi** Christ, 1987.)
    2. Make a film mocking Muhammed. The result? The US Secretary of State calls it "disgusting, reprehensible, deeply cynical, denigrating a great religion, and rage-provoking."
    What more proof do we need of the anti-Christ commitment of liberalism?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Russ

      I do not agree with what he has done, but I will defend to the death his right to say it. Freedom of speech is the fundamental freedom that the USA was founded upon. When a country has freedom of speech, sometimes you hear things that you rather not have heard, but it is necessary to preserve the freedom for everyone. When you start banning some kinds of speech, then the freedom starts to disappear.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Springthecat

      Gee Paul, I don't recall the Secretary of State commenting on the urine on Christ business. Quite a leap of logic there classifying liberals as anti-Christian. Vote for Mitt..he thinks the same way....convoluted

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ralph Nadar

      people in these countries do not enjoy or understand the importance of freedom of speech. We can thank our founders for that – In their world if they speak out against their leaders, they and their families are slaughtered. If they question in any way the dominant religion – same result. Obama is their choice for our president

      September 14, 2012 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  11. Gryla2

    I served in Desert Storm and got 3 confirmed kills with a TOW missile.

    I think about their screams of pain and the smell of burning flesh when I touch myself . . .

    September 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunshine100

      I'm so very sorry you carry with you and suffer the stuff of nightmares. I wish for you the love and support from many people who appreciate you. Many will walk beside you on your path to wellness. To be with a group of people with similar trauma is a powerful tool for addressing PTSD – changed my life entirely and opened the door to a positive future.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |

    i am pretty sure that my phophet Muhammad (PUB) will not be happy about these violence. Leave them (filmmaker and Terry jones) with Allah. Allah is GREAT.

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

    This seems to have a professional opts feeling. A coordinate attack on two embassies, the misdirection of riots arising from a bogus movie and the killing of an effective ambassador. What is more the perpetrators seem to have experience in storming US embassies. In other words, Iran.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. paece

    Our Muslim brothers should learn to accept criticism, Just the other day there was these movie that criticized Jesus, you call Jesus a prophet, and we Christians consider him as messiah, did you see anyone throwing stones and killing innocent people?, religion should be a venue of peace regardless of situations, not the source of calamity and death of innocent people.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • amen


      September 14, 2012 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
  15. arazavi

    It is very unfortunate. Killing the US ambassador to another country over objections relating to a video to which he had no connection is pure incivility. This the death of an innocent individual and sharia law requires the responsible party to be punished and only allows for punishment short of death penalty with the acquisition of pleading and grant of forgiveness from the family of the victim. If the Muslims that created this tragedy fail to produce on their effort to identify the individual[s] responsible, they are not abiding by Islamic law. The United States responsible statement and position should not be interpreted as a lack of commitment to bringing the murderous individuals to justice. Muslims understand the language of violence and power very well. That's why they speak it. Let them hear us back in line with the character and principals and ethics that makes us great Americans. I hope that they hear us back with iron fist of justice and resolute mind.

    condolences to the victims' families, friends and loved ones.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
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