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. Philip

    @banasy. Hogwash. The US would have joined with England and France from day one (instead of waiting until the war was 2 years old before joining) had so many American businesses not been helping Hitler. Congress actually had to pass the Trading WithThe Enemy act to FORCE Chase Manhattan, Ford Motor Corporation, and many other corporations and individuals who were helping Nazis DURING the war with our sworn allies. (incl Prescott Bush, the only man who refused to quit and was so charged)
    That, and Oppenheimer's diamond cartel refused President Rossevelt's prepaid order for industrial grade diamonds used to quickly build war machines. Germany got all the diamonds they wanted.
    Depending on carbide cutting tools rather than diamond cutting tools more than doubles the time it takes to build war machines.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      As I am used to you saying 'hogwash' to each and everything I say, I will just say:
      Oh, so the US *didn't* get into the war after J apan bombed Pearl Harbor?
      I am aware of why the US didn't get into the war until then; maybe you read somthing in my post that said "hey, Philip, educate me on something I already know' instead of what I frigging SAID: the US didn't enter the war until after Pearl Harbor was bombed.
      Can you tell me what part of my statement was 'Hogwash'?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. kmac

    So many Johnny come Latelys on here. Want to go back to the hijackings of the Nixon years we did nothing, German Olympics raid the Achille Lauro. Iran taking our Embassy-Carter not responding then RWR sold them weapons, 200 Marines killed in Beirut– not much reaction, we lobed shells into the Bekaa Valley, Pan Am flight blown up–dropped a couple of bombs in Tripoli. Six Airliners blown up in Libyan desert. Terrorist attack NY on 9/11 we do attack Afghanistan but then we wage the biggest war on someone not involved. Iraq will limp along until a strong man takes over–its still to committed to tribes and religious leaders and religious concepts same wtih Afghanistan. I know I have left some attacks out but taking a short view of history is wrong. Groups see the West as weak and unable to respond.
    The West continues trying to avoid the type of events that lead to WWI–we have yet to solve all the problems which resulted from that. The Black Hand set into motion the events that bring us to today. So please stop picking up in the middle of these events take in the big picture

    September 13, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    Impeach Rossevelt and his wife.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Oh, never mind...I should have stuck to my earlier statement that I was going to ignore P's posts...but calling BS that American didn't enter the war until Pearl Harbor was bombed just didn't set right with me, especially because it's TRUE.

      I'm talking factual timeline, here, nothing more.
      Again, nothing more.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jim

    the moral of the story here is that Obama is going to win the election AGAIN this year regardless of what all you conservatives think because Romney is a crook and an appeasing LIAR. and you only hate Obama because hes black, lets be honest

    September 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Sure there is some truth to that, everybody is a bit of racist, some are worst than others. Also agree that Romney is not what we need but I know with complete certainty that Obama is most definitely not taking us down the right path.

      And if you want blame that on the fact that congress and the senate are opposing him then that's fine but we cannot afford to have a president for four more years that keeps us fractured. So right or wrong he has to go.

      Also I don't agree with many of his policies, too much of a Robin Hood mentality, which is not sustainable. Don't think so? Just look where France is headed and you will understand better.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • TruthHurts

      You are correct Jim! Just as black people voted for Obama just because he was black too! Double edge sword type thing!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Another Brick in the Wall

      Barry was warned when this all started. Khadafi warned who was behind the uprising. Did ole Barry listen ? Yes he did, thats who he wants in power. Obama lit this fire and now we need to start putting it out starting in November here in the US

      September 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      4F is too right here, smacks of stinky kettle. So Romney is a crook because he is not black and belongs to those who brought civilization to the world that no one can deny , then he has to be a crook. Thanks and no thanks.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Philip

    The US wanted to ebter the war two years before the US did. Even AFTER the decision was made to join with sworn allies, it took nearly two years to actually do it. It took over a year and a half just to plan the invasion at Normandy.
    The US became involved in WWII long before Pearl Harbor, just not officially.
    It's like saying George Washington was the first president. He was just the first OFFICIAL president appointed by Congress, who were all being held at gunpoint by Washington's troops. (US History 101)

    September 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Portland tony

    I'm shocked, simply shocked! But W T F does this have to do with this thread?

    September 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I was answering Hamsta, and this is what happens.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Philip

    Actually, it's the State Departments job. Wtg, Hillary? he he

    September 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. John Croft

    Somebody please inform these misguided mobs that in a real democracy I may disagree with what you say, even hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Another Brick in the Wall

      They lack the education and intelligence to comprehend that concept.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    US WARSHIPS were escorting supply ships filled with cargo for England long before Pearl Harbor, just not officially.
    The proof is in the pudding. Not in what someone says is in the pudding.
    The USA began fighting WWII the day England declared war on Germany, except for Americans who sided with Hitler.And would continue to finance the Nazi war machine for another two years before congress forced them to stop.
    Official doesn't always reflect actual. Like, your loverboy Clinton didn't officially Monicate. But he did in fact Monicate according to law. Just not officially.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. adil

    to every one say that's arabian arabic and america for us is like what u see now: she kill in iraq 1000000 from the peaple. she kill 300000 in afghanistan and now she have a big planing to kill the libyen... opS!! sorry i forget that america kill 100 million from indiens peaple u have to change ur politique america because the world hit u to mutch and there is no thing name CAIDA in our world and every one know that CAIDA is just part of america but i guess that peaple american to stuped to know that and sorry for my langue english is not important langue in my country weeek up america and don't totch our prophet is the last thing u must play with him is the best humain in the world

    September 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Another Brick in the Wall

      Stop the $*** and you no more get killed !?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sayitlikeitis

      We saw how radical Muslims blew up innocent children and women in Iraq while America was busy building schools, roads, bridges and buildings. Same thing in Afghanistan. If you want to blame someone look at the radical Muslims blowing up innocent people, not America.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. zaggs

    "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."

    The Embassy had already been attacked. Even if there was no intelligence (like anyone in the administration would go on record saying that), the previous bombing coupled with Sept 11 should have been enough to have more than a 30 man security force.

    "appropriate for what we knew."

    If it were even appropriate for an Embassy they would have beaten back the attack. Instead it was guarded by Libyan traitors who either helped the attack, or ran away.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
  12. puppypumper

    Who cares who wins the election. Not like the President has any real power or care for the American people any more. The real question here is why haven't the American citizens demanded retaliation and the heads of those responsible yet? Americans have become a bunch of fearful wimps.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
  13. adil

    i find the american peaple very nice but the governement want the bad for us and thanks for the american peaces

    September 13, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kovach

    Ah I got it what he meant when Hitler said 'I killed half of the Jews in the world and left the other half for you to realize why I killed the first one." They are actively provoking conflicts between Christians and Muslims (at US taxpayers expense) in order to weaken the two and get the world domination in inheritance. Who knows *who* made the inflammatory movies? Who knows *who* was behind the killing of the US ambassador in Libya? Who knows *who* will advice the US to take counter action? The world peace at risk!

    September 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. sandie shuck

    Intelligence knew it was a planned attack in Libya-the Egyptian President knew the crowds were gathering around the Embassy.
    We tell these people good bye-no more money-we tell Obama good bye-no more money.
    I never thought in all my life I would live to see a President go out and make a candidate the scapegoat when one of our ambassadors was murdered and other Americans.
    CNN quit covering up for Obama – disgraceful. Obama needs to put his big boy pants on and scrap his Hollywood dreams and run our country.
    And I am so sick and tired of CNN and MSNBC making conservatives racists. I have a good question for you guys-are people who disagree with him being racist to his white lineage or his black. What a bunch of babies and whiners you liberals have become.
    Never, never would Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Bushes, Clinton ever in a million years not gotten out there and called this as act of war and do something about it or withdraw all Americans from these countries who have attacked us.
    And Obama apologized to the Muslims about some American spreading some story that no Americans even know what sense the article made, hardly any American read it and most Americans would have never bothered to read it.
    Radical Muslims call us names all the time and want to kill us-who in the hell really cares what they think-they are thugs.
    Bring our people home and let these countries figure out how to murder without our billions or be honest and protect us and side with us.
    Shame on you CNN and you wonder why fox out rates much.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
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