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. Jerry D

    You guys are Journalists. Journalist are suppose to be Unbiased. I might watch your show again someday if you guys were not pro Democrats 100 percent of the time. Are you pieces of crap brainwashed?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Becky W

      You are exactly right.....I have been watching news on an off tonight and all I hear is CNN news focusing on attacking Romney, saying he is distracting from real issues in the Middle East. No, CNN has decided to focus on Romney instead of the real Middle Eastern crises that the President continues to avoid and his administration can't even figure out what their own policy is. That is the REAL story and the most important piece of news CNN should be focusing on. And oh, by the way, Romeny was absolutely right!! I'm a non partisan, but sickened by the partisan news you have. You need to have REAL INTELLIGENT UNBIASED news people reporting versus the crap you are trying to say is reporting.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      BOTH !!!!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • HZ

      You're talking about FOX News, right? Anyhow I was watching CNN 2 days back and they certainly were giving conservative and liberal sides attention. The host was even taking the conservative position and challenging some democratic expert's claims that Romney's tax plan would raise taxes on the middle class.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Exactly correct. Some of the so-called news outlets are little more than propaganda arms of the Democratic party and the left. It is shameful.

      The biggest unanswered question is "How could Obama and his administration be so incompetent in their foreign policy?"

      September 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      Don't worry. Hopefully people have enough of a sense of self-preservation not to re-elect someone who isn't a leader. Just because journalists/anchors/commentators don't show much capacity for it, doesn't mean the public at large shares their same sentiments. Besides, CNN isn't the worst. I can think of two other news outlets who beat them hands down.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tiredofthelies

    Hopefully Obamahas learned and will now understand why, post-9/11, it is important for him to attend the daily security briefings and communicate better. His last attendance was 9/5/12. That's unacceptable especially given the anniversary of 9/11 being a vulnerable time. Americans are even less safe with Obama in the White House. CNN owes it to all Americans to lose their bias and start holding Obama accountable. Time for change!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Checkyourfacts

      Not going to the security briefings is another mistaken statement by Romney. Bush Jr. is the one who had to have security briefings everyday because he didn't like to read. Obama (like every other President) reads the security briefings on his own and consults and questions as necessary.
      A little bit of follow through and fact checking goes a long way.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. lapezeus

    To the "Muslim" from Saudi Arabia:

    You said this:

    "Prophets that god sent are red line for us; we do not accept any abusing toward them."

    Now, let me explain something to you. In THIS country, we have freedom of speech. Which means I can call anyone anything I want, including your prophet.

    If you didn't like what the guy said in the film, then don't watch it. But to kill men who had nothing to do with the making of the film is a "red line" for us.

    Likewise, to kill the man who even made the film just because he made the film is also a "red line".

    The fact is, your religion is incompatible with the rest of humanity on this planet. It is a fascist religion. Your people have had ample opportunity to prove otherwise, but instead, you consistently choose to prove my statement true. Frankly, I don't care if you worship your prophet or a donkey's rear end. I don't care. And you shouldn't care what I think about your religious preference. Unless I am coming to your country and preventing you from practicing your religion, then you have absolutely NO RIGHT to tell me or any of my fellow countrymen what we can or cannot say, much less to kill us for our beliefs. Some people talk badly about my religion sometimes, too. But I would choose instead to convince them through my actions and through love that their criticism is invalid. It is their choice what to believe in, and even if I disagree with them, I respect their freedom to choose and to believe what they well as to say what they want. It is God's place to deal with them when it comes to this. Not mine, and not yours. And until you understand and respect that, your people will no nothing but war, death and destruction for the remainder of your time on this earth. I also wish you the best, sir. But I will not accept that you think your people have a right to kill any of my countrymen simply for disagreeing with you or your religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sickofyou

      Just wondering: Did you know the US leads the world in incest?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carol

      Lapezeus, EVERY word that you write is so true. I wish what you have written would be posted for all the world to see. It is the essence of what every Muslim must understand if there is ever going to be peace for mankind.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  4. blinky

    There's no getting around that the attack was planned. The tantalizing question is if the protestors were unwitting stooges or informed decoys. And if the second is true, then you have to go on and ask if there's a connection between the makers of this inflammatory film and the terrorists who laid seige on the embassy. It seems so unlikely that the combatants prepared for a four-hour attack JUST IN CASE a big demonstration at nighttime in front of the embassy ever happens.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • really???

      This movie was on you tube in July for anyone to believe that this was just coincidence it started a protest on Sept 11th is as blind as these mokeys protesting.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Sierra Golden Eagle

    I have what now seems to be an important question. There were two highly trained SEALs involved in this, and yet there are no reports of wounded or killed terrorists. That seems to be a major contradiction as far as I'm concerned. I cannot conceive of a situation in which a SEAL, who was armed, did not get anyone! There's something wrong with all of this, and I'd like to know what the hell is going on?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • HZ

      One of the was retired SEAL and was off duty. the guy was playing a video game when he died. He heard shooting, but probably there's other on duty security people who are supposed to handle it and maybe if you live in Libya you hear harmless shooting all the time?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. lifehaven

    GOD’S prophecy of the character of Ishmael & his offspring explains: “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” Gen.16:12. Add to this a religion whose "holy Quran" (as Obama says with an Arab accent) never once uses the word LOVE in ANY of the text, which shows the infantile nature of the beast. The children of Ishmael are being played like a cheap fiddle! And we all have to listen to it.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • UnemployedHoosier

      Its nice to see someone make sense of this in such an easy way. GOD is good , all the time!!!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. peacetolero

    The 14 minute "film" was probably the clever work of Mr. Al Qaeda himself designed to incite the more moderate Muslims to do their dirty work for them and possibly cause the US to stop all aid to these countries. In the fragile climate left after the Arab Spring these new governments are prime targets and the terrorists will do whatever they can to gain more ground.
    Just a theory......

    September 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kay

    We needed "chatter" to be prepared for an attack? How about a planned protest, unrest and the Annivesary of
    9-11? Terrorist killed these 4 Americans, but we failed by not evacuating earlier and not giving them the security they deserved.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Leo

    From The Independent (UK):
    "the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given..."
    Obama's shame.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Agnes Burns

    How about asking why did we have such pathetic security at an embassy that a fifth grader would know was in an unstable and volatile country? We should be ashamed the most powerful nation on earth let this happen.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. KEVIN21261

    This was not an isolated extreemist group who killed these American diplomats. There were hundreds of protesters trying to get into the American embassy. A few of them succeeded.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. chris v

    It's not a coincidence that this happened on the 9/11 anniversary.Cnn just believes what they want to.This was a planned attack by another muslim extremist group,probably the Muslim brotherhood,Obamas friends.That should tell you something!And what Obama doing now?Still campaigning.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mr. Popular

    Obama's administration really leads from behind.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Real Life

    Politics on American soil is not the issue.
    We, as a nation, just have to make a choice – do we continue to police the world (remember the British Empire); (The Ottomans); (The Chinese); (The Turks) – I mean be real here people, every comment is Bull and based on petty, short term nationalist, American rubbish that we've been fed. There's a REAL decision to make, police the world or re-focus and be strategic about what we engage with and some situations just have to play themselves out. American Christians (Western) will never ever convert Muslims and Islamic Extremists. Not in our collective life time. We won't. Wake up, Own It. Let's pick our battles, extract our people and defend the barriers we set up globally...all else, honestly, if these people want to burn b.s. because of a movie?!?!?!??!?!?! Bye.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Travis

    I have some questions of my own that will probably remain unanswered by the hyper-PC media...

    1) Why are we continuing to pretend that we can somehow change the nature of the beast and fundamentally change Muslim societies by installing Western-style democracies.

    2) Why do these fanatics think that it's not okay to depict an image of Muhammad, yet it's perfectly acceptable to trample a cross or burn the flag of the nation that helped get rid of Khadaffi?

    3) Does the Muslim world seriously believe that everything that comes from the American entertainment industry represents the will of the U.S. government? Even if they don't have freedom of the press in their own countries, I'm sure they must at least understand the concept of it existing in other countries.

    4) Why, why, WHY – do Muslims look for any excuse to riot? You can't tell me it's because of a movie, or a cartoon, or even poverty and oppression (if it were, we'd see the same thing in places like Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia). What is there real reason?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • dougp

      In response to 3, I have tried explaining to africans freedom of speech and how the us gov can not stop its citizens from expressing their views and they dont get it. They dont believe the most powerful gov in the world cant stop its people from saying whatever.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mk54

      Travis, good questions. The short answer to all is that they have one foot stuck in the 7th century and their feudal minds cannot conceive that the most powerful government on Earth has no power to limit the freedom of speech and expression of it's citizens. Democracy needs a concrete foundation of a educated, tolerant populace, all they have to build on is the shifting Saharan sand.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • RockinSA

      1. Because we are self-absorbed and believe that everyone wants to be like us. Or worse, that we have some mandate to make the rest of the World like us. Very "Romaneque" I would say.

      2. With a literacy rate that can be measured in the single digits in many of the Arab countries, they readily believe what they are told because they know no better. They can't sit and do what we are doing right now on this site.

      3. I have lived in a couple of Arab countries and the answer is no, they don't. The Arab world is truly a caste system world only they don't acknowledge it like India does. If you are a Pakistani muslim living in Saudi Arabia, well you are still not a Saudi and therefore it is okay to withold your pay, your passport, to beat you, to work you in veritable slave-like conditions.

      4. Again this lies with the literacy/education. If all you know is what your corner Imam tells you then that is all you know. And "justice" is a swift beast in the Arab world. There is no ten years on death row and legal challenge to lethal injection. There is a brief stay in shackles and a quick trip to chop-chop square. So, peace be unto him, or get your you-know-what kicked.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
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