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. Josh

    Time to get George W Bush back as president.
    Obozo has no clue what to do.

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

      sure, let's get Bush back ...we need another pointless war and there is still a smattering of the economy left to decimate

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • nynjct

      I agree with you. Owebama's Foreign and Economic policies have totally failed. This is result of Apologetic Tour '09
      in Muslim Countries, Cairo, Egypt where said that "America is not any more Christian country, but Mulsim......... Also,
      vowed 90 degree before King of Saudi Arabia. Owebama has never visited our Alliy, Israel during his presidential time.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patchygroundfog

      Dude, give it a rest. The 9/11/2001 attacks occurred when Bush was president, and the CIA provided intelligence months in advance warning of an "imminent" domestic terror attack that Bush and Cheney decided to ignore. You do your cause no favors when you just talk out of your ...

      September 13, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |

      Might as well have Obama go over there just to face Mecca once....just once...

      September 14, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      No, The Bush era is over. His time has come and gone, and besides, he can't be elected for a third term. But it is time for a different person to be in the WH. Who we have now is not performing so well.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
  2. Big A

    We pray for God to detroy our enemies. Our enemies pray for God to destroy us. SOMEONE is going to be disappointed. SOMEONE is wasting their time. Could it be.....EVERYONE? – George Carlin

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Name s kel

    1st of all this country needs to trak down the ignorant tea party right wing phoney so called christian trash that made and financed this garbage movie. Knowing it will enrage the equally ignorant simple minded extream islamic fools using anything to go after the US. And as for mitt.....well hes just a stupid oppertunist loser soul seller who has shown his disreguard for unity in this country just to achive his personal pres. goal reguardless of the cost even national security and american lives.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. pbstlouis

    Obama is doing a lot of backpedaling now to obscure the facts of the situation. 1) He has been campaigning and either missing or not paying attention to briefings about what is going on in Libya and the region. He was caught unprepared which cost 4 Americans their lives. 2) The Libyan Embassy was not adequately guarded given the potential for the instability that could erupt at any time. 3) Obama's policies have weakened America, making us easy targets for extremists.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patchygroundfog

      4) You have no idea what you're talking about.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Patchygroundfog

      Seriously. That's like saying the chief of police is responsible for the 4 kids killed in a drive-by gang shooting in Los Angeles because the chief was on a fishing trip. That's what detectives and police officers are for, yeah? Do you really think the president's absence would keep Hillary and the State Department from acting to prevent a planned terrorist threat? And do really think the president and his staff are ever out of contact with anyone who matters? Of course you don't, because you're not that stupid. But you are just like Romney and his ilk, taking a tragic act of senseless violence and trying to score cheap political points by telling lies ...

      September 14, 2012 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
  5. Mr Everyman

    Instead of protesting, these Islamic people need to read Quran 2:256 and ask themselves how the verse relates to the protests and violence. Then they can stop protesting and start building a better society free of stonings, beheadings, cutting off limbs and, various other tortures.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. congratulations

    "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.

    Someone very much unaware of how and who overthrew the government of Libya with MASSIVE AIR asstance from the United States, France and others - not too long ago. And how the lies and insults –to apparently free democratic nations of people who had no choice in the matter - of how that happened are paying dividends.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • serana

      Yep the central bankers got Libya's bank – even before Gaddafi fell they opened their central bank – Libya was one of a handful of nations that had their own central bank and wanted an African Gold dinar created for payments for their oil. Remember Saddam did not want dollars but euros and they got rid of him? You gotta take those worthless US dollars or you pay the price

      September 14, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  7. serana

    An excuse to blame Obama so the republicans can start another war. The republicans are funded by the arms merchants.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ralph Nadar

      I think you hit it right on the head. You must be the one intelligent liberal.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
    • steve1963

      We, republicans, don't want another war. We don't want Obama, either.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      Though I'm not a Republican, I do lean conservative, and I, for one, don't want another war. But that said, I agree with the other poster, not so keen on Obama remaining president.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
  8. Eric

    I say if they want to live in the 16th century then let it be! get our people out of there and lets work on our own economy. NOBODY in America has seen this movie nor cares too, it's all war games to bring us into another war. lets save our money and stop risking our lives for the 1% who wants it all. Sincerely, right wing conservative

    September 14, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  9. Name*Lance D.

    You know I'm really starting to worry about my country and some of its so called citizens. The United States supports these middle east countries by giving them billions of dollars every year, basically flushing money down toilet. Oh yea, they don't know what those are. Anyways we do nothing but help them and they continue to take our money then turn around and stab us in the back. WHY doesn't our government WAKE-UP?!? They hate Americans, they storm our embassies and shred our flag and our president apologized for some stupid video nobody has ever heard of! Bullxcht! Those people owe the U.S. an apology, plain and simple. After that, then we drop the bomb. Personally I'm tired of reading about these idiots that have been killing each other for thousands of years and will continue to do so no matter what anybody tries to do. Get a back bone all you apologetic Americans that think the video is at fault, no, some things need to be dealt with now and harshly.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • jacg

      For our embassies and consulates not to be protected on 911 is shameful and absolutely ridiculous. I can not even believe our State Dept. and the White House were so slack. For our marines to have plastic bullets at the embassies that did have a few marines is ridiculous as well. Wake up Washington.......These people hate us. They want us dead! What is it that you do not understand? You can not trust security that you hire from local people in the country.....they will not protect and they will betray for money or whatever. Are we stupid or what? Mr. President......we are tired of you apologizing ...... Stop it now!

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

      I do not think money is an issue here. The problem is the US policies (both dems and rep) "carrot and gun" under the cover of human aids. It bothers us because we are giving away the money we do not have, we are boring it with interest.

      The second issue is that we are trying to impose the democracy that they do not want and understand it.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Nobama4u

      And our apologizer-in-chief does nothing except apologize for the stupid video which had nothing to do with these co-ordinated 9/11 protest attacks. These people are animals. Drop financial support, pull out our people and bomb them into pre-historic times. Oh, wait a minute, most of them still live in those times..

      September 14, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • rmtaks

      He didn't apologize for the video. The embassy condemned the video before they were attacked. Stop lying.

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

      rmtaks: immediately after the attacks the embassy released a statement saying that they condemned "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Right after the Embassador was murdered.

      Later, the WH threw the embassy under the bus, claiming that the statement had not been approved by Obama's State Department. Really? An embassy just attacked released its own statement not seen or approved by the State Department. Really?? Impossible.

      As soon as Obama came under fire, the embassy statement was blamed on the embassy itself in an effort to do damage control. Embassy statements are given to them by the State Department, especially in situations under duress like this one.

      Obama did not directly apologize for the video. His State Department condemned the film maker rather than the embassy attackers. Nothing like this has ever happened under any previous presidency. Ever. Proving how different Obama's agenda and internal instructions/policies are from historical harsh reactions to violence against the US.

      He blamed the wrong people to patronize to the embassy attackers. This is a pattern with Obama. Don't include language supporting Israel – until someone points it out. Don't include 'god' in the campaign – until someone points it out. Criticize a film maker rather than embassy attackers – until someone points it out. Then change everything and pretend it was never changed.

      Grow up. As nice of a guy as we are sure Obama is as a person, he is completely and utterly overwhelmed both domestically and overseas. End of story. And so many will vote for him again because he looks and sounds good on TV. "And did I mention – he's black?" (quote from Obama mocking the GOP with a race card statement during the '08 campaign)

      September 14, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • chf

      History lesson: If the US doesn't have a presence in those countries, another country will. China, Russia, you name it, they would be more than happy to prop up puppet dictators to do their bidding. So what, you ask? Your pro-isolationist theory is what led to WW2. There are always those who will take advantage of people by whipping the population into hysteria over some alleged wrong-doing. The extremism leads to Bad Things.

      Now I totally agree that the US is spending far too much money overseas. The US can still be influential without trying to be dominating. It doesn't make sense to have thousands of military bases spread all around the globe. We need to be alot smarter about how we spend money to influence other countries.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  10. cpnugent

    Islam is obviously a violent religion. Events like this are routine, notwithstanding Islamic non-violent apologists.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Sunshine100

      99% Islamists are very peaceful. The Koran teaches compassion. Do you know Muslims protected, and were friends with, Christians and Jews throughout history until modern times? The radical conservatives in their countries get their hearts and minds filled with hate and continue a thirst for mindless killing. They hate women because I think they subconsciously feel inferior to them. People who feel helpless, hopeless, and inferior always finds another group of people perceived to be inferior and deserving of threats and injury. These radical terrorists are about 1% of the Islam population. Problem is we Western countries, Russia and China, singled out these hard-core patriotic individuals, trained them to be effective killers, armed them with sophisticated weapons (except Russia), and sent them out to kill. Don't condemn a huge population of people based on the actions of a minority that we created, encouraged, armed, and supplied.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
    • chf

      "Christianity is obviously a violent religion. Events like this are routine, notwithstanding Christian non-violent apologists."

      There, fixed it for ya. Christianity has been used to justify countless murders over the years. Genocide of Native Americans, torture during the Spanish Inquisition, threat of death to Galileo for his scientific discoveries, the list goes on. Religion in general is very easily abused because any behavior can be rationalized. Hurricanes destroy your city? It's just God testing your faith. Earthquakes destroy an enemy city? It's God's wrath.

      September 14, 2012 at 1:19 am | Report abuse |
  11. danthefisherman

    Was there any doubt wha tso ever that the Obma administrion knew? Maybe he will attend a few more intel briefings and play a little less golf,

    September 14, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary1972

      Was there any doubt Bush & Cheney knew of 9/11 attack but did nothing about it?

      September 14, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  12. Elbegewa

    Unfortunately there are always some people around who want to inflame religious war for their own dark ends. And they know there is always fuel around on all sides, and it just takes a spark to ignite that fuel.

    During the 30 years war shortly after the Reformation up to a third of the people in the center of Europe died in the wars between protestants and Catholics. Many rulers of the time used the religious fervor for their own dark ends.

    In the 30's and 40's there was a guy named Hitler who wanted to exterminate the Jewish. He used the Jewish for his own dark ends.

    Now there are a few extreme right wing Christians and a few extreme right wing Israeli/Jewish and the recent extreme movie maker who are trying to ignite war between the Muslims and the Christians+Jewish. All for their own dark ends.

    All men of good will need to speak out to silence these neo-Hitler-like extremists and to help put out their fires.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Yep, these sure seem a lot better off and peaceful then they did when they where ran by dictators.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Nobama4u

      The dictators were the only ones ruthless enough to keep these animals in line.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:36 am | Report abuse |
    • drbebus

      Wow, you are blaming Christians and Jews? You are an extremist lunatic.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
  13. steve1963

    Let me note my comment was directed at serana.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  14. Gerry

    The biggest question is why we do not have military guarding our diplomats and why they are not authorized to fight back with deadly force. If a few of the invaders had been shot as they tried to desecrate the flag, I am sure that the whole group would have backed off. Obama must go.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
    • tazman00

      My question, which has not been addressed, is how did the embassy get caught flat footed on September 11? Never mind the politics. As ex-military I would have been on full alert, armed and ready. Someone dropped the ball here and it wasn't a politician. It was the people on the ground. It is the responsibility of the security personnel to take action, expect the worst and hope for the best. You have diplomatic immunity and you can protect your embassy and yourself with whatever force is needed. You don't need the State Department's OK to secure and defend an embassy. Until we know what happened, or what didn't happen, on the ground all this talk, especially political finger pointing, is worthless.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Isaac Bickerstaff

    CNN left off the most important question.

    Who was more to blame for allowing or encouraging this attack, George Bush or Mitt Romney?

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