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. cawage

    the USA needs to remove all it forces and money from these countrys they will never like us and will kill every one they can. we have one ally in that area and it take care of it self. no more trying to help them let them do it them self.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:38 am | Report abuse |
  2. Angie

    President Obama thought he had fixed all the problems through conversations, the US support for the so called Arab spring and all the money we are pouring into these countries. The reality is that it has made things worse. These countries need a firm hand. They used to fear the US power, now they see us as weak and apologetic. They went into our embassy wchich is considered US soil and we make excuses for them. I fear for what may come to the US if we don't stop them now.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
  3. Chuck88888

    The State Department recieved a warning 48 hours before the attack and did NOTHING. Sec of State Clinton and President should resign, and they should take Attorney General Holder with them. Shameful.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Doc Knowitall

      Yes, the question is whay did they do nothing. No prep, no extra precautions,and no relocating embassy staff. Why is that ? I am thinking they wanted this to happen. Probably not the death part, but they wanted to use the event as a crisis somehow.

      September 14, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  4. Gerald

    Youtube/Google should pull the video down. Our 1st amendment right extends to the government restricting the right of free speech not private organization’s. The responsible thing to do to deescalate these events especially since people are getting hurt and killed over it. Commonsense should prevail here but it won’t because too many legalist will want to twist the issue.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. DaveinFL

    The biggest question is that why we didn't take any precaustions when we knew to expect attacks SPECIFICALLY to the embassies in these countries. Massive administration/State Dept failure!

    September 14, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Doc Knowitall

      Amazing how the media wants to focus on the movie aspect of this isn't it ?

      September 14, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  6. Logic

    How do we know the people responsible for this film were not HOPING for this reaction? I would not put it past islamists to plant such a film and blame it on the US just to rile up the ignorant.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  7. SugarKube

    Shame on this administration for fighting a war without congressional approval. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, or not....

    September 14, 2012 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • wyl5326

      I wonder if Barack will now even dare to claim credit for ending Iraq War and then losing to Islamic mobs for his absentee attendance as president in charge of country's welfare ! Perhaps it is better for him to walked out from the job he can't handle and not ask for more time ! Remember Hillary's 3AM phone call warnings and Barack is not answering the phone call !

      September 14, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  8. I know what you wrote

    "great religions of the world are stronger than any insults"
    IF you cannot stand the criticism that is the BEST PROOF that you are standing on LIE.
    Christians do not behave the same way a muslim does because a Christian know that he/she is STANDING ON TRUTH.
    Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him." (John 14:6-7)

    September 14, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  9. I know what you wrote

    IF you cannot stand the criticism that is the BEST PROOF that you are standing on LIE.
    Christians do not behave the same way a muslim does because a Christian know that he/she is STANDING ON TRUTH.
    Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him." (John 14:6-7)

    September 14, 2012 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  10. forget it!

    This is the first well-planned executed attack on America under Obama watch. He owns it! I have heard that there was warning two weeks before the attack. Obviously the administration did not take it seriously or the administration did not or skipped the briefings? We should get to the bottom of this. Four American lives lost!

    September 14, 2012 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
    • American

      Just as the liberals have said that Bush conspired for the 9/11 atgtacks this sure smells like an Obama conspiracy to get peoples attention off the economy.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. Name s kel

    Sugar go straight to hell with all lf your anti american statments.Traitor.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
  12. Doc Knowitall

    There is only one unanswered question that matters. The State Department had 48 hours warning that this was happening. Why was nothing done ?

    September 14, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • wyl5326

      Simple answer – Absentee Barack was on campaign trail in Nevada and even escape attending daily Intel Briefing ! That should be impeachable offense for absconding from his sworn duty !

      September 14, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  13. Amarjeet

    World wide spread & speed of riots under banner of Anti-Islam video should warn those responsible how well are terrorists organized in the entire world & all countries. All political leaders & public should work for what cements all together not separate all. Survival is in co-existence not in co-resistance.

    September 14, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  14. wyl5326

    The movie is just pretext of the mob with Islamic terrorist backing to attack the anybody who are non-muslims ! Germany has nothing with the alleged offensive movie and yet the mob attack their embassy ! Time for civilized world to hold their government to control their mobs or get similar treatment when allied powers went into China to put out the Boxer rebellion during the dying days of the Qing dynasty !

    September 14, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  15. Einstein

    My question to President Barak Obama is, what action is he taking to investigate about the Film producer who allegedly have dubbed and portrayed Mohammed indecently in his film?

    September 14, 2012 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
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