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. Mary1972

    Like the theories that is floating around that Bush Administration knew of 9/11 attach but nothing about it, yeh?

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

    I've read most of the comments on this story and can see that most people are stupid, with several blaming Obama for supporting terrorists. The fault of the murders in Libya rests soley on the shoulders of the people firing the rockets and other weapons, not on Americans, not on Obama, not on Clinton, and certainly not on the makers of arguably one of the worst written, poorly acted, and simply stupidest movies in history.

    THese murders, along with the other murders incorrectly called "suicide bombings", are the result of religious indoctrination instead of theaching reality. I work in the Middle East (Iraq) where most people (no exageration) cannot count or spell thier name, but can quote verse after verse of the Koran (pick your own spelling) even though they can't read it. It's amazing to me that the people of this region aledgedly want and demand to be part of the modern world, but still refuse to educate themselves and thier children in what matters, not only religion.

    Until Muslims as a whole denouce and put a stop to random murders, the world as a whole will not take them seriously. Wake up Muslims. Only you have the power to stop these stupid acts. Don't count on Obama, Romney, Clinton or anybody else. Murder is being done in your name and with your support. You have to be the ones to stop it if you want to join the sane people of the world.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      I think what has people upset is to come across as being too sympathetic, lack of beefing up of security in those places attacked, pouring out of financial support to these countries (which went on during other administrations, just to be fair), offering what on its face seems to be some sort of an apology about some film someone made which insulted their prophet (not from our country, mind you), after people have been murdered and rioting in the streets in front of the Embassies and Consulates, and hatred toward the U. S. So, with that said, I think that's what has most people here more than a little upset. JMHO.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
  3. steve

    Obama is a bit too close to the Muslim world, if ya get my drift!

    September 14, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
  4. Nobama4u

    They had more warning that that. Unarmed guards in a muslim hot bed? This administration is totally clueless...

    September 14, 2012 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
  5. dainks

    And the most important question, somehow missed by the intellectual giants at CNN:
    What did Obama know, and when did he know it.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
    • bill davis

      Obama know nothing he no good to briefing meeting....

      September 14, 2012 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. chicago7

    We're hearing from Libya what are being characterized as confusing mixed messages. Their government, when speaking in English, seems conciliatory toward the U.S. but when speaking in Arabic they are much more aggressive toward the U.S. Allow me to translate. In English: "Please don't abandon us. We need your money." In Arabic: "Go screw yourselves. But leave your money on the way out."
    Countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Libya think of the U.S. like an old, addle-brained uncle who they can get money out of and then mock behind his back.
    I don't know what we're wasting our dough for. It's not like we're buying loyalty; they work against us anyway. Pakistan taught us that.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
  7. bill davis

    Obama has braging rights, love to run his PR....I got the man...
    Looks like theey got a few of US man...

    September 14, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  8. Leigh2

    They can only manage to keep this out of the news for so long if what has been said is true. Then it will break eventually. They always have a lag time because the liberal media wants Obama to remain in office – at any cost. And I'm not just citing CNN. There are plenty of others.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jay

    I think the biggest question is, why was the embassy evacuated prior to the "protest"? obviously something had to of happened to provoke that...

    Secondly WHY was the Ambassador STILL there after the evac??

    Third, WHY does it appear the Embassy Security was so lax??

    Why wasn't every hostile person inside those embassy walls given a little metal present to the forehead?

    The Embassy Security was totally inadequate and 3 people are dead because of it!!

    Stop playing footsie CNN, ask the hard questions and get a REAL answer... you bashed Bush hard for 9-11, now do YOUR JOB and bash Obama and ASK the questions the families of those who are dead want to hear the answers too, as does the rest of the US population.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
    • tazman00

      Your question on why the Ambassador was still on site is relavant. He may have been a bit naive and that cost him his life. 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.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  10. drbebus

    Bottom line, people bash Chritianity ALL THE TIME and make all sorts of false/deragotaory claims against their savior Jesus, yet you don't see Christians dragging innocent people down the streets and murdering them. Why we give OUR money to these countries with these ideologies truly bothers me.

    And to the idiots that blame FORMER presidents or anyone but these Islamic countries for these never ending atrocities, you can kiss my rear end. You are of the lowest intelligence, I'm surprised you have made it this far, or even no how to read, because you are clearly retarded.

    I'm sure Bush does take some lame for 9/11, but I sure as hell won't blame Obama for something that happens 3+ years that happens after he leaves office.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
    • drbebus

      And now I look stupid writing "no" instead of "know" it's late 🙂

      September 14, 2012 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
    • IMO

      You are on point

      September 14, 2012 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
    • peggid

      I knew what you were saying and it makes a lot of sense!

      September 14, 2012 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
    • damo12345

      Except the war with Iraq is absolutely crucial in all of this. Not only because it made anti-US sentiment far worse, but also because it was a catastrophic drain on US military personnel.

      Bush messed up so badly that crap years from now will be his fault, never mind "3+ years".

      Not that he's the only one to shoulder blame. The way Reagan abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out allowed the Islamic Extremists to go in and remold the region in their image.

      September 14, 2012 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
  11. andzia

    is it just me? a movie is made here, the actors are lied to, a teeny clip gets put up on utube and the result is violence and death to Americans. Hello people this is brought to you by the same bunch who sent a few guys to flight school in 2000-2001. except they are getting smarter, it's always costing them less and less to pull their jobs off. of course the whole thing was planned from a to z. it's not a coincidence it happened on 9/11 –just a friendly reminder justice will not prevail. these people don't mind killing their own people. And the Muslims they pay to go out and get little mad....well it probably pays better than making zero for the day......

    September 14, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
    • damo12345

      Incorrect in the extreme. The movie was made by a coptic Christian we've identified.

      Of course terrorists may have dubbed it into Arabic, but it was made by a Christian. And the terrorists probably praised Allah when they saw it, because that fool handed them a perfect propaganda tool. They couldn't have made one better themselves.

      September 14, 2012 at 2:23 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mary 43

    Feel the need to insert a few facts. Barack Obama was born an American. Had attended Christian churches. Does not attend meetings on intelligence or anything else because he has constant briefings on whatever subject(s). According to all legitimate news sources, no one knows for sure up to this moment – 12:56 AM 09/14/12 – what happened in Cairo, then Libya. The use of RBG's would seem to indicate planning rather than spontaneous protest. The failure to have intelligence on this attack is something all involved from Congressional committess thru the White House to CNN are investigating. There was no chatter leading up to this attack. ....and the President had not one word that could be construed by rational thinkers as an apology. The Cairo Embassy message came before the Libyan Attack and referenced the First Amendment and its misuse to denigrate any religion. It was NOT an apology but rather an attempt to cool off a seriously threatening situation, what "diplomats" are supposed to do.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  13. Name s kel

    Your statment is typical of the bold stupid lies spewing out of republicans mouths. There is something sick,perverted,and discusting beinga right wing republican today. To blame anyone but republicans when the blame lies on a tea party right wing typical undereducated hate loving phoney christian group than blame The President on the United States Obama for the actions of both extreamists ,republicans,and islam extreamists and causes the death of 4 americans on diplomatic duties and further demises the securitiy of other diplomatic americans because you dont like the race of the US President? It shows how low the right wing republican has gone . Thats TREASON!!!AND YOU KNOW WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO TRAITORS!!

    September 14, 2012 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
  14. more2bits

    It's too bad there is no real Superman so he could clean up the mess in the Middle East. It sure would keep him busy.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:55 am | Report abuse |
  15. arno

    I am disgusted each time when news come up about the islamic world and these weird islamic guys.Did anyone expect something else from these coran swearing beggars?They protest when paper of books is burned (although most of'em are illiterate anyway) or a movie is against their way of life (although most of'em havent seen it i'm sure).But their deeds are worse than that.Hippocrats!We should stop working with'em worlwide!

    September 14, 2012 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Angie

      I used to think differently, now I sadly agree with you. The west, especially the US needs to realize they can not change these primitive, barbaric animals into civilized citizens.

      September 14, 2012 at 8:08 am | Report abuse |
    • NiceRight

      Why does the media keep harping on some unknown movie as the cause for all this hate towards Americans. This is NOT the cause of the Islamic terror. Makes as much sense as looking for the movie or book that caused the latest earthquake or erupting volcano.

      September 14, 2012 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • nick

      I say for every American flag they burn we burn a copy of the their stupid book.

      September 14, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • David, North Texas

      Its disappointing that each time an event like this occurs when there is a loss of like. It's interesting to see that CNN is on their A game by elevating the politics of this incident. They throwing all their guns at Romney's miscue instead focusing on the root cause by asking questions on why the embassy had little or no protection at all, whereas, our embassies in Europe are better fortified than Libya was. When candidate Obama went on his world apology tour that in itself lessened our credentials as a world leader. I just hope there is still time to correct our past missteps and regain our integrity in the world as a formidable leader on the international scene. Right now the world is looking at the US to stand tall and be that leader we once were again. Focus CNN...focus.

      September 14, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19