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. Tacitus Talks

    And they are very careful not to report all the stories in the foreign press basically saying that they were warned about this a week ago. So blame Romney. Look at the comments CNN – you "boy" is going down this time. The polls have Romney ahead.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Ernie

      Your black and white perception of the world, 'us versus them', is monotonous and intellectually challenged.

      September 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jenng

    With a 48 hour notice of the attack, does anyone really believe this is all because of a video made? I mean I am sure they were offended by it, but really who cares. I see this as an excuse to do what they wanted to do all along. They wanted to get the people there on board with a carefully planned assault. So they use the video as a way to blame it on something other than their own tyrannical ways and they stage it on September 11th... So not only do they attack us because of their religious beliefs but they TAKE A STAND on a day they know affects us all! Best yet, we comeback with we "condemn" such an attack??!! Really?? Doesn't EVERYONE condemn attacks to begin with? We are now the weak ones....but then again look who we chose to try to save us. I hope people see that being so far on the left has blinded the true issues that are now coming to our face and we do NOTHING! We need to get out of these countries. WE need to see that WE have our own issues and this is not going to make anything any better by APOLOGIZING for OUR people being harmed and killed. This is a religious battle we cannot win. They are prepared to DIE for their religion. Most of us are not. The President needs to stick to HIS WORD and bow out and move on! He is useless. He is pathetic and he is too arrogant to face it.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Name s kel

      jenng you ignorat neocon traitor, its people like you that needs to arrested and locked up for your statments in this time when our country and other countries are targets of islamic extreamist attacks. Attacks due in part to a consertive stupid right wing group. I would love to do more to u than arrest, but than thats just me.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Realitychk

      Great job Jenng, I could not have said it better myself. I think it is interesting that a surviving guard stated from his hospital bed that there were no protests at the compound prior to the attack. About 125 men showed up on two sides of the compound and attacked. One must consider this did happen on 9-11. It is also interesting that Sean Smith, one of the men killed, stated online that "assuming that we won't die tonight because one of our "police" that provides security is taking pictures". Even he knew that something was not right before it happened. This was a planned job, where is our intelligence??? On the other hand, our president snuggled down for a good nights sleep after brushing his teeth, putting on his jammies, and putting a hold on security notifications til the morning. By the time he heard about it, our Egyptian Embassy put out a statement, while our Libyan Ambassador is MIA with who knows what is happening to him before he dies. It is hard to fight radical islam terrorists when we have leaders of our country minimizing, excusing, apologing, and covering up the the terrorist hatred of Americans. Where is George Bush when we need him.

      September 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dustie

      Obama is an absolute failure. He KNEW about the violence in Benghazi that was so bad that the UK closed it's embassy June 3 due to assaults by heavily armed men (rocket propelled grenades). Not a little protest as the Obama Admin. would have you believe. So here is my question about Obama: He did know about the violence which was reported in the press in the UK and warnings sent to him, why did he not bother to attend security briefings at the White House? He skipped the last five before the anniversary of 9/11, but he had time to campaign. Why did he not at the very least order extra security? Why did he not even let the ambassador know that he was in danger? (He didn't.) There were NO Marines or US security, BUT Valerie Jarrett had a full security detail for her vacation... Obama is incompetent and it is time for the liberal media to stop covering up for him.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • maynard

      Jenng has learned nothing since the 9-11 attacks and the Iraq/Afghanistan debacles. Now like back in March 2003, she wants to put the Jihaddists on steroids, knowing she won't be taxed to prosecute the wars & those courageous Americans who clean up her mess won't be spilling her blood.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Name s kel

    Whats so sad is during Sept. 11 2001 when this country was attacked under a repblican pres this country united. Now that theres a black pres. in the White House look how devisive the republicans are. Stupid republicans did you NOT know that CIA, ATF, FBI had more than advance notice of the attacks,which was not the case of these embassies attacks? And part of these attacks were do to a bigot right wing republican party film! All republicans are doing instead of uniteing are adding more division in this country. The true enemines of this country are the islamic ,and right wing extreamists.

    September 14, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Dustie

      You are right; Bush did nothing, and I find nothing to admire about Bush or his presidency. I hoped for better with Obama, and I am disgusted with him now. He is even worse than Bush, and I did not think that was possible. BTW, Clinton did not act on information that he received either. Obama does not even do a basic thing like ordering extra security. I don't like Bush or Obama. As an independent who has actually always voted Democratic, I will vote for Romney 2012. Obama is a total failure. I voted for him, and I regret that.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. TiredOfPaying

    Note to self: After inventing the time machine, first go back to 700 AD , then 1938, then yesterday for the winning lottery number. Be sure to bring plenty of ammo.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. wayne

    Looks like Obama and Clinton were both MIA when it came to knowing what was going on.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. davey

    My big question is even allowing for the fact that they are under orders, how do you get Marines to guard an embassy with no live ammunition.
    Stupid, selfish, arrogant bueurocrats.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. r.henry

    The problem is hypocrisy on both western and Islamic thought process.if given a chance half the world population which criticizes the western philosophy of free speech and personal freedom would migrate there. Everybody wants western ideas,technology,music ,food but dont understand, its the freedom and open society which fuels the growth and its development .There will be no end to these cycles of violence ,these are signs of more troublesome future for the human species.Present population of the world have forgotten humanity .Religion, culture ,language can be adopted but the basic human feeling cannot be acquired .Its pity people are being killed in the name of some stupid video,thats shows the tolerance of the religion the people and the mindset.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. krehator

    Answer: Mainstream Muslims refuse to clean out their radicals. Instead they make excuses for it. Thus they support it.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ken 123

    The United States should not continue to feed countries that foster terrorism against us. Cut off all foriegn aid to countries where our embassies were attacked.

    September 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  10. lmc11

    Ambassador Chris Stevens did not have a Marine detail in Benghazi, Libya. But White House Senior Advisor and Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett has a full Secret Service detail on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, according to Democratic pollster Pat Caddell.

    September 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  11. james ainoris

    I hold the evil people who made that stupid movie responsible equally to the murderers..... the man (coward) who produced it claimed he was an Israeli jew.... which is a lie! He is a rightwing christian militant involved with that other evil idiot pastor in fla who burned holy books! He said he was a jew because he and many in the evangelistic crowd are rabid anti semites.... now he makes trouble for us jews by insulting Moslems! If someone in USA made a terrible film ridiculing jeezuz it would also cause riots etc. Millions of jews were killed in middle age europe for "desecrating the host" or for blood libels or killing jeezuz...! yet as usual you hypocrites blame the entire Moslem world for the acts of a few people! Now again like the protocols lie ,you drag us into you hatr world! It is against the TORAH to disrespect any human being or their religion....we simply do not speak about it... therefore I am wrong to speak about this so I will end here... Shalom means peace... james ainoris

    September 14, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. bill

    One person made an offensive movie and all hell breaks up in Africa and Middle East. The movie was a spark that was ready to go off sooner or later, movie or no movie. Egyptians and Libyans forgot that freedom was achieved indirectly and directly by our help. Part of the Arab world feels left behind economically by Western Christians. In reality they are left behind by many non Christian Asian countries. They are frustrated and angry, so as usual when humans are in pain they turn to their faith as the final line of defense. Until there is an economic improvement there is going to be more upheavals all against the US. We are an easy target, we are all over the world and the top dog. In this day and age with instant communication, this event show a soft spot of Muslim faithfuls. Anybody from any part of the world can generate a very big problem for themselves. Embassies can close up, foreigners leave, money stops flowing in and no one to attack. Accomplishment, zero.

    September 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gary Rama

      From what I can tell the Ambassador was alive and taken somewhere and killed along with the others. I don't care if it's Obama, Romney, the Israeli's or US Military, crush the cowards and be done with it. Cut off all aid and cut off their heads.

      September 14, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. peacetolero

    To NameS Kel-
    You talk about Republicans causing division in America!!! What do you call your idiotic accusation that they are somehow responsible for the inane film being blamed for all the unrest. Lumping all Republicans, Democrats, Muslims, Christians, etc. and making sweeping general accusations about them "all" is utterly childish and ignorant.
    Whoever is ultimately responsible for the film knew exactly what they were doing and the reaction it would ignite and who would know that better than a person raised in the Muslim faith? How many Muslim Republicans do you know? Until the "film" was widely circulated thruout the ME it was hardly noticed and it is now being reported that the wider dissemination of it was done by the extremists themselves including airing it on Egyptian TV. You say that the true enemies of America are Islamists and right wing extremists but the truth is ALL extremism is counterproductive and uses violence and destruction to further their twisted agendas always using the excuse that "the end justifies the means".
    If you are truly concerned for your country then stop trying to whip up more negative BS about Neocons and use your God given brain for a change. We are all Americans and we need to be united in this struggle, United we stand, divided we fall.

    September 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kings Bestman

    This action is very primitive. Mohammed must be a very weak and powerless prophet that can't fight for himself. Hence, street urchins, tugs and Muslims are are always fighting for him. How many times have you seen Christians fighting and killing in the name of Jesus Christ? None! It is because the Christians believe that Jesus Christ (the true son of God) is above everything, and more than powerful enough to fight for himself. Islamic believe is a hoax and very primitive.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Chris-Alade Zeaqraht

    My condolence to the family of the ambassador and his staff killed in the attack. This problem is a call to respect other people beliefs no matter how different it is, often people always confuse freedom with respect and responsibility. It is not right to mock other people's beliefs and value. The world will be better place if we can learn to accept other as they are rather than judging and comparing their beliefs and values: there is beauty and harmony in diversity.

    September 15, 2012 at 12:23 am | Report abuse |
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