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. saywhat

    And as for the attack on Libyan embassy, it is becoming clearer as reports come in that it was carried out by affiliate of Al-Qaeda to mark 9/11. Nothing to do with the film. Protests were a coincidence.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ug

    This is all obamas fault...

    September 13, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Well... if you think the Republicans can do any better, just look back to the Bush days. That's the war mongering administration that got us here.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. John P. Tarver

    Once Obama granted al-Qaeda soverignty in Libya, this outcome became the next logical step in the process.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick in Wisconsin

      The make up of the commenters here is exactly why we need to reform our education system...

      September 13, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Protect American Jobs

    Did anyone ever see Monty Python's movie "The Life of Brian"? – Funny, but we never saw any Christians attacking any of the British embassies because of it.

    These people are out of their frigging minds – They're seriously messed up in the head.

    Enough is enough already! – We really need to start increasing the safe harvesting, production and distribution of our own natural energy here in the USA, rather than paying for fuel from countries where they hate us. – Let’s keep that money and those jobs here in the US.

    Drilling here at home might not be the whole answer, but it's certainly a good place to start.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      So this article STILL doesn't show you that the violent radicals are a minority?
      Maybe because you're one of the radical minority in this country.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ron

    We have children that go to bed hungry every night in THIS country. We have the largest number of families living at or below the poverty level in THIS country. We have seniors who can't pay for food because they pay so much for medications in THIS country. Our schools are under staffed in THIS country because cities and states have been forced into cutting their budget's. Our roads and bridges in THIS country are crumbling as we drive on them. Not to mention the worst unemployment crisis since the great depression. SO... that being said, lets forget about THIS country and just keep sending BILLIONS upon BILLIONS to the countries that harbor militant activists and terrorists so they can burn our flag and KILL our diplomats and our men and women in uniform. I think it's time (in THIS country) to reorganize our priorities. Just saying...

    September 13, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michelle1958

      Amen. We need to help the poor here in the US before sending billions to Obama's Muslim brothers

      September 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Monroe_Doctrine

      It is time to return to the Monroe Doctrine. I would close down our embassy in Egypt as the Egyptian President appears not to care; I would cancel all money for Egypt. The Libyan situation is still unfolding.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • palusko996769

      Don't be naive Michelle, the money was flowing to these countries long before Obama. And will continue to flow long after him. Unfortunately, politics, oil, and big money make very strange bedfellows, and party affiliation in these matters just does not matter.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karim

      Micheal 1958 You are very idiot that blame Obama for everythings....But why you not dare to say why should a charletan like this unknown to make such a film just for bring crazy fenatics to streets in Middle east to do that crime acts !!!???
      you anti Bobama are worse than those thugs in M.E you are both side of a nasty coin

      September 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Portland tony

      Unfortunately, the billions we send are for oil, the use of port facilities and among other things to fight wars. Politically to give stuff to the poor would be labeled "socialism". The current administration has given a lot of money to the states, but most off it was used to paydown their debt. Currently US companies hold $10 trillion in cash reserves which won't be invested until the world's economy improves. No country is an Island economically, so we need to maintain ties throughout the world to sell stuff. Other nations will move in with their economic and political agendas should we pull out. Already most of African trade and infrastructure improvements are done solely by China. Etceterar, Etcetera,Etcetera!

      September 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Din

      All our involvements to those countries are due to greed and capturing resources. They are creep but we are not honest either. As you said there are many issues we can work here rather then going 1000s of miles away to fix other issues. If we work hard in manufacturing, inventing alternate engery resources to improve ourselves then we do not need their resources and no threat to innocent lives.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • jimmer

      They are called "food stamps" ron......if any body goes to bed hungry, its their own choice or their parents are really really stupid.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • DC

      Amen. Well said. It is time to pull all foreign aid and slash our spending; and what we do spend – spend it on our children and our needy.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martin

      Jammer were does the money come from to pay for the food that traded for food stamps

      September 13, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Norm

    The media is responsible for all the hysteria in the world today.
    I'm surprised they even reported this.
    There are rational, peace loving people in these countries.
    You wouldn't know it by the headlines we get.
    THIS should be in huge print and labeled BREAKING NEWS.
    Not hidden in fine print further down the page.
    Use your heads people.
    What are you trying to do?
    Start WW III ???

    September 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      That's why I quit Face Book.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • DC

      Good point. The media is the problem. They need to properly investigate Obama. Force him to defend his weak policies and to aggressively go after Clinton and her Saudi/UAE backers. The media ought to be independent of the administration. Not a backer of it.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ryche

    This is what happens when you spike the political football and brag about killing the head terrorist... when you go to your DNC and claim that you have killed bin laden.. and say it 21 different times people start to get mad.. and they retaliate... this is what happens when you put an amateur in the white house... he acts like an amateur...

    i'd also like to know why noone on cnn is talking about than candidate obama in 2008, going on cnn and on the same day that nine service members died in the war, there was our current president, bashing Bush on national tv, in regards to the way the administration was handling the wars... obama, the biggest hypocrite to ever reside in my white house...

    September 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • kls817

      Nobody in the US caused this trajedy. Muslims hate us and will grasp at any excuse to kill someone.
      I knew this would happen. Long ago I posted that we shouldn't get too optimistic about the "arab spring" nor should we help it along. I believed,and still do, that these primitive, barbaric people do better under a tyrant dictator than under popular rule.
      And no, its not just a minority of them that are the problem. These terrorists have a huge amount of popular support. They do these terrible things because they know they will be regarded as heros. Their religios leader do not speak out agaist their actions. If their leader told them that "a good muslim is never violent" then there would be no more terrorism.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • jmlv20

      RYCHE... put your vioin away and shut up.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • DC

      Start calling a spade a spade. Let's have an honest discussion about what muslims believe and how that plays out into criminal codes and societal behavior. End all foreign aid to muslim countries. If the charities (Billy Graham's Samaritan's purse) and all the other Church groups that send aid want to keep sending the muslims aid then fine – but stop our government from backing these monsters.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Pharos

    I don't think the West should abandon the rest of the world because third world thugs try to scare us.
    That's just what the real nutcases want. That's what they've been saying all along.
    Free men go where they will and thugs will get what is coming to them. That's why we have armed forces.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. desert voice/troubledgoodangel

    The answer I want to know, is whether the U.S. private security contractors have been under orders to secretly film the faces of individuals in the crowd, who appeared with RPG's. This to me is Prevention 101. Also, were there enough hidden cameras around the embassy compound, as it should have been. And, who was in charge to call the Libyan police in a timely manner? It does not appear that the government knew that the embassy was being assaulted. These questions need to be answered quickly, because ultimately, the security should have been guaranted by the CIA and the Libyan authorities! We have yet to hear of Mr. Panetta. As far as I can see, there was no one responsible for security in that embassy!

    September 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Blaine

      desert voice/troubledgoodangel, They had turned over security of the Embassy over to the Libyan police. The police had a grand total of 4 guards there. T

      September 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      I'll hafta agree with you there Desert Voice. You would think every single embaasy is flooded with electronics and manned-up like fort knoxs

      September 13, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • alan_turing

      It's not CIA. It's the State Dept that is responsible for security.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Al

    The BIG unanswered question is.....when will Obama grow a spine??????

    September 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Al

    Cut ALL aid to Libya and Egypt. Because of Obama's inept foreign policies we now have lost 4 Americans to a bunch of Islamic thugs. Obama knew this could happen but instead chose to go golfing and run around on Air Force One trying to keep his dictatorship!!

    September 13, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karim

      I think you evengilists and pro Ramsfield never get any lesson from your past!? You are responsible for 4500 Americans lives who lost in Iraq and all interest went to Iran !!!and You don,t feel any shame to blame Obama for What!?

      September 13, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • freetter

      Aid? Lol! Do you really think the US sends troops and money for "aid" and "help"? How old are you? 8?

      September 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • DC

      I can't believe Clinton apologized for the first amendment after one of her people was sodomized and murdered. Crazy times.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Karim

    What I really know noone in Media care a darn thing about these thousands of comments that we leave here or other medias Why i say this because I have not seen anychange of Media adittute to any incident in the we waistting our times and Media just do their buziness. How nahive we are hey

    September 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • alan_turing

      It's a good way to vent. No one gives a damn what we say, of course.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • DC

      Someone should hold ted turner to blame for a lot of the issues we face. Turn it all off and force the politician you elect to get to congress pass a good budget and reduce the size of government. Big problems. Little men like Obama need to be far away from places of power.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. xfiler93

    well, with the entire Middle East in flames, the DEAR LEADER is wondering if Egypt is an ally or not. The man child inocmpetent is way beyond his ability to lead in this, so he and the MSM blame Romney. Unbelieveable.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. alan_turing

    The only question is why was there no security detail. It's a State Dept thing. No good now to send 50 marines. What was Clinton thinking?

    September 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. mike58

    Obama is clueless:
    The State Department, cutting through the confusion over President Obama's claim that Egypt is not a U.S. ally, contradicted his characterization Thursday.

    For the record, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, Egypt is considered a MAJOR non-NATO ally.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
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