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. garypsmith321

    Still trying to blame this on a movie that was released months ago? The Lame Stream Media should relize by now that they would have taken a lesser hit on thier confidence rating had they just come out three years ago and admitted they messed up and said "yea, we made an error selling this chump to you... Obama aint the one." and been done with it.

    This constant free protection from the LSM for Obama, amounts to affirmative action for the president. If he's that special maybe he should appear in public wearing a helmet from now on.

    September 15, 2012 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
    • sandie shuck

      Why did not Obama have more security for a country he went in to , alone without Congress's approval, and knew it was a a spot for terrorists.
      And how come the administration is blaming a video that came out 3 months ago. Why did they not shut it down then? I have not or would take the time to watch it but how come more American Muslims did not protest this video. And the liberal media supports this.
      Obama bragged in 2007 he knew about Muslim culture as he lived in Indonesia.
      How can anyone say that-there are nuts in every society. Look at America- look at our prisons. We have our own share of mean and evil people. How about there is good and evil.
      Look at the death rate in Chicago> Talk about a place of terror.
      You cannot blame one person and you cannot brag about one group of people and imply that the Muslim world will love the US more because just because you are Obama.
      And I cannot believe that our Ambassador was sodomized and drug through the streets. Why in the hell do we want any American there unless the government has our embassy and consulate totally secured.
      And yesterday the film was being blamed for the attack that killed 2 of our Marines but also because Prince Harry was on another side on the British part of a base in Afghanistan.
      This is starting to be just like when Carter was going to be nice to all and all would be nice to the US and what happened. The Middle East Blew up in places and an Ambassador of the US was murdered.

      September 15, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Readypro

    What a sad and unfortunate set of events in the Middle East. As others have commented, why would some people choose to murder those that responded to a request for help to free the nation of Libya? In the end, this had nothing to do with a movie, but it has everything to do with a power grab and oil revenues for terrorists. So much for the Arab spring, as it is as frozen and mired in repression as ever! And the freedom of Arabs has been lost by the mindless acts of a few. Arabs will never be free until they make better choices and act on their choices – I know it must be difficult considering the repression of Arabs in the past, but they must fight for their own beliefs, otherwise they will always be repressed by those that will fight. Oh well, perhaps in another 1000 years, they will learn from their past mistakes. Until then, they are lost. Meanwhile, the USA is sending more spies and drones to Libya thus polarizing youth to turn to another brand of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, locking them into hate and fear for another 10 generations. Where does it end?

    September 15, 2012 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
    • goldminor

      It remains to be seen if Libya can steer a different course from its past. The main trick will be to keep security so that their new civic leaders can have a chance to reform to a more modern state. What that boils down to is that they will have to be as willing to fight for their own security and future, as they were in fighting for their initial freedom. I hope they make it.

      September 16, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jaun in El Paso

    Anyone who belives Obama and Clinton that this was all about a movie and not a coordinated attack is either completely ignorant or just suckers. Obama and the liberal media love suckers who can't think for themselves.

    September 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandie shuck

      It makes me so mad that we lost 2 Marines and the support this move got. These Marines were killed the terrorists said because of the move and Prince Harry.
      Carter all over again.
      Love the liberal media who have never served in the war or had a brother or sister, spouse, or a parent.

      September 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. electric52

    We should elect Assad of Syria as our next ambassador to the entire middle east .... everything would be solved

    September 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. one nation under god

    The more things i watch and read about the muslim world and america,makes me think.WE are no longer a nation that puts God first,many don't believe in God here in the u.s nor do most believe in God in the muslim world.I think the u.s actually has a bit in common with them..WE NEED to put God back at the top of all else.

    September 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Keyser Soze

    No need any questions, we have most answers: Heavily armed thugs, on 9/11, using an old and stupid movie as pretext, attacked and killed Americans on a diplomatic mission. These are the only facts in this whole mess. The rest are opinions.

    September 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Freedom

      Of course Obama bragging nonstop about killing Osama and his failed policies of appeasement had nothing to do with it. They were screaming Osama, Osama because of some film no one has seen. Give me a break...

      September 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gulfwwind

      The Libyan President and many other sources have stated that the attack was preplanned and nothing to do with the movie. The cause as in being the movie is just another Obama falsehood. The major cause prompting the attack is dear leaders foreign policy.

      September 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Keith

    I have no problem using Fire Bombs and Daisy Cutters on Religious Extremists no matter who their god is.

    September 16, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  8. goldminor

    I hope that they can eventually connect the dots to flesh this story out. It sounds multilayered on the face of it, with too many events coming together to create this tragic story. It would also be nice to hear of any of their imams standing up to calm their over-emotional adherents down. Perhaps, by reminding them that Islam is the religion of 'peace'. Another thought is " Why doesn't the media step up the dialogue a bit on this subject, along the lines of the fact that no one in the world would ever have heard of this bit of film, except for this violent muslim reaction to it. Our president would be more impressive if he could impart some verbiage along those lines. Instead of the old standby apology that we don't want to offend Islam, he should point out the absurdity of their reaction to this worthless piece of film. In a diplomatic way, of course.

    September 16, 2012 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
  9. Kim

    Fantics and their religious beliefs being pushed on people miles away its rude and ridiculous they do nothing but destroy a d kill al because they didn't like the opinion of a movie these are the same people that made a fuss about a episode of south park. Really now it's some movie that most of have not seen. What's so special about them that they think we should care about their ridiculous beliefs anyway. Its sad people had to die and more property was destroyed because of some ridiculous religion so called belief. Can't we just bomb these people and see if Mohammed save them then.

    September 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Freedom

    Obama wants us to believe some obscure movie no one has seen started all this, not his bragging none stop of killing Osama and his failed policies. Unbelievable...

    September 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Simpleton2

    "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."

    The Administration is intentionally causing this confusion to overcome the FACTS ...1) In 2009 The Department of State's own Inspector General condemned as inept the level of security at US Embassies. Apparently neither SOS Hillary Clinton nor President Obama took any major steps to improve security. 2) It should have been obvious to all that 9-11 presents a unique opportunity for Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists to attack US targets ....and our embassies are a favorite target. 3) Apparently Libyan officials warned US representatives just a few days earlier that they were fearful of possible terrorism against diplomatic targets....4) that inane 'film' was NOT the cause of the terror, it was simply used to gin up the usual rioters, who seem to always be available for a fun day of protests ... this time they were immediately followed by heavily armed Terrorists. 5) two years of pretentious bragging by Obama and Hillary about the US killing of Islamic Terrorists simply provided more fodder for the terrorists to seek revenge.

    September 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • alan_turing

      I would not attribute to malice that which can easily be explained as incompetence.

      September 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. alan_turing

    So many theories. All likely to be incorrect. I don't believe there are more than a handfull of people in the US Gov that can possibly understand the motivation. Of course, that won't stop us from feeding a revenge cycle. KSM said it right.

    September 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mimi

    how did this whole thing start???

    September 16, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      It started with Dubya when he announced to the world after 9/11 that islam was a "religion of peace" instead of having the guts to stand up to it and expose it for what it is.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. xfiler93

    the lesson is that appeasement and apoloy tours never works. something DEMS have a problem with.

    September 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Adam

    All of the muslims who are demanding that all non-muslims must respect and obey their primitive and barbaric muslim laws is how this all started and they are the one and only problem with this ridiculous 'film'. Americans, and other freedom-loving western nations, will Never obey such backward and idiotic laws! The Only way that would happen is 'over our dead bodies'! So, 'bring it on' islamonazis! We're 'ready to roll!'

    September 16, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
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