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. Donald F Runion

    How did it come to pass that there were no dead marines but we have dead embassy personnel? That cannot be. I wish the Marines no harm. However, the "adequate" presence of Marines is a farce. Did they stand by and watch the Ambassador be killed? Did they have bullets? I suspect not. Someone on our side made the decision to put the Ambassador and staff at risk. That is obvious. Is the statement that we had enough Marines on duty honest? They were under live fire; but evidently they could not fire back. The protectors are unscathed? I wonder why I hear nothing about this. Are our Marines around the world still unarmed?

    September 13, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • jschmidt

      They had 48 hours notice of the possible attack. They didn't have a Marine contingent. From what I read the 2 Marine's were sent after the rioting. Their security was Libyan guards. THe trip to Benghazi was supposed to be secret. A real messup of Obama's admin. In Eqypt the woman ambassador reportedly would allot he Marines bullets. And she issued the apology for insults to Islam. SO that must have been policy.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dick Watt

      Marines are stationed at Embassies–a US Embassy is in the capital of a country, in Libya, Tripoli. The attack in Benghazi was against the building of the US Counsel office there, so almost certainly no Marines were stationed there.However, for reasons yet unexplained, our Ambassador was there, and tragically died in the attack. While I don't know for sure, I'm confident that our Marines on Embassy duty are well armed and authorized to use lethal force when required. Though I'm not a Marine, my son is, and I hope this helps you better understand this situation.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. arealpatriot

    Sad that you have to read foreign papers to get the real truth......

    September 13, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. arealpatriot

    Don, under currently leadership, foreign policy is a farce and our security agencies have been neutered by an apologetic figurehead. His time is over.......

    September 13, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. SABRINA

    IRANIAN Government IS DOING IT ALL IN LIBYA IN CIYRO AND IN IRAQ THIS IS THE ONLY WAY HE CAN BY SOME MORE TIME AND MAKE SURE THEY WILL GET EVEN WITH USA they knew after Syria will be their turn thats why they are doing all this in middle east.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • smdahl

      “We have penetrated Egypt in many areas, including the political, security, economic, and military spheres. We have succeeded in promoting sectarian and social tension there so as to create a permanent atmosphere of turmoil, in order to deepen the discord between Egyptian society and the government and make it difficult for any regime following that of Hosni Mubarak to alleviate this discord.” – Israeli General Amos Yedlin.

      Source: Veterans Today

      Revelation 2:9 "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan."

      September 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Athiest

    Why do Muslims kill people for blasphemy?

    Because Muhammad killed these people for mocking him as mentioned in authentic Islamic sources:

    (1)Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf [Sahih Bukhari 5:59:369, Sahih Muslim 19:4436]
    (2)Uqba bin Abu Muayt [Sunan Abu Dawud no. 2686, Sahih Bukhari 1:9:499]
    (3)Nadr ibn Al-Harith [Qur'an 83:13, Ibn Hisham, and Ibn Ishaq]
    (4)Abu Rafi' ibn Abi Al-Huqaiq [Sahih Bukhari 4:52:264,]
    (5)Khalid ibn Sufyan [Musnad Ahmad 3:496, Abu Dawud, book 2 no.1244]
    (6)Abdullah ibn Ubayy [Sahih Bukhari 5:59:462]
    (7)Al-Yusayr ibn Rizam [Tirmidhi no. 3923]
    (8)Abdullah bin Khatal [Sahih Bukhari 5:59:582]
    (9)Habbar Ibn al-Aswad [Sahih Bukhari 5:59:662]
    ...e.tc

    September 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sayitlikeitis

      That further proves that the West and Islamic culture are not compatible. Fine we need peace. Muslims and the West should live apart in peace. When Muslims go on the Western created internet they are saying I like Western culture and accept what I might find there, including things that I might find offensive. Sensitive Muslims should just stay off the internet and they won't get offended.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • smdahl

      Revelation 2:9 "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan."

      September 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Eris13

    AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL...so arrogant and ignorant. Why would you want to inspire DEMOCRACY to other countries, when in your own country your police kill a mentally ill man using 46 bullets, and they get cleared? Please think for a minute, and open your history books.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      I am an American and DO NOT want to spread democracy, I don't care what happens in the rest of cest pools of the world. Don't worry once aid stops being delivered to the backwards underdeveloped pits you will cease to exist. WE and other civilized countries are the only thing keeping them a float. It won't last, but that is what happens when you bite the hand that feeds you!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cathy

    What I understand from BBC is that there were no Marines defending the Embassy. A Marine security force is standard – but there was none. They were, as the TY Times said "lightly defended" by 12 Lybian security – 8 of which were wounded – 7 lightly (released today) and 1 kept in the hospital.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • gedwards

      It was a Consulate, not an Embassy. Not sure the question is still valid.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hubert Boyd

      This was not the Embassy, but a more remote Consulate, and the visit of the Ambassador was more or less a secret.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Cathy

    I think the Jihadi Islamists don't differentiate between the American government and American media. They think of Obama, the government, and the media as all the same – American. So when Obama goes around bragging about killing Osama, and defends the use of drones, and then they see this American film, they think of Obama as The Enemy. And now that Obama is saying "No offense will go unpunished" – It's just like poking the bully in the eye over and over again.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sayitlikeitis

      Every decent person in the world was glad when the low life killer Osama bin Laden was killed.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. JSmith

    Lets calm down everyone, Islam is a peaceful religion. That is unless their killing people. Get out of our country and go back to your homeland, your not wanted here. You kill people for a dead man who is in the grave. Go already

    September 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tony

    The most important question not ask is Why?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John

    All praise mohamed the prophet, lol.

    I don't care if it was the movie that made them mad or a terrorist group planned it, because that was yesterday and today it is everyday muslims that are burning and rioting. Showing their true colors and acknowledging their support to the groups we call terrorist - which they call allies.

    CUT ALL AID TO THESE COUNTRIES AND LET THEM IMPLODE!

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    September 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. xfiler93

    6 things the DEAR LEADER did while the Consulate was burning and Americans being killed:
    1. I
    2. am
    3. going
    4. to
    5. sleep
    6.now

    September 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. gedwards

    Question #7: Why is the Obama Administration continuing to blame that film, when the attack was "pre-planned"?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lea

    @jsmith obviously they are not as peaceful of a religion as you would have all us to believe ! Not just Americans they hate Jews and all other religions as well ! They are always killings setting fires destroying property they are far from peaceful people! Look at the facts !

    September 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. smdahl

    “We have penetrated Egypt in many areas, including the political, security, economic, and military spheres. We have succeeded in promoting sectarian and social tension there so as to create a permanent atmosphere of turmoil, in order to deepen the discord between Egyptian society and the government and make it difficult for any regime following that of Hosni Mubarak to alleviate this discord.” – Israeli General Amos Yedlin.

    Source: Veterans Today

    September 13, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
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