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. Mk54

    The longer this violence continues, the more Muslims will be sent off to meet their maker. They may find that the reception is even warmer than they expected.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • KP

      The way the film maker is stressing the fact that the movie was funded by Jews, I wonder if this is another tactic by a Muslim, to implicate Jews. Remember the recent Pakistan incident where a Muslim burnt the pages of Koran and accused a young Christian girl of blasphemy.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  2. Kay

    It is strange these extremist think their God so weak that mere mortal men must defend him.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tacitus Talks

    It seems that the Obama administration KNEW about the attack. The British Press has been doing the job the American Press should have been doing. Romney is not president, so he is irrelevant to the fact that 4 men are dead because of incompetence of the Obama administration.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Montanajau

      When you have some proof, Tacitus Talks, why don't you come back and share it with us? If you have no proof, I suggest you find something more suited to your mental level.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • AK

      Thank you Tacitus. This is ALL OVER the Telegraph. A spontaneous mob, with that level of weaponry? Rii-iiight.

      CNN is doing battle damage for their candidate. Valiant effort.....

      September 13, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Going John Galt

      Apologist...raw emotion getting the better of me.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Buck

      John Galt; For a moment we thought you were really Dick Cheney...until you apologized.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dustie

      It is being reported in several places that the US and the White House were given warnings of the attack 48 hours before it took place, but did nothing. No additional security for the embassy or Ambassador Stevens. No Marines. A building "guarded" by about 30 local Libyan officers, who apparently betrayed the embassy staff.
      Even if there had been no credible threat, the Obama Administration could have foreseen the possibility of an attack on the anniversary of 9/11, and just the possibility is reason to take precautions. The embassy staff knew nothing of the warnings received by the White House, and were not instructed to go on lockdown.
      The warnings were apparently shared with many Intelligence Agencies around the world, notably the UK which has reported it (see The Independent, The Guardian, and others). Drudge is reporting it, but the mainstream media is the US has not-yet. Obama is incompetent, an amateur, and he is dangerously compromising US security in the world.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dustie

      The mainstream media in the US has tried to suppress it, but it's all over the news in the UK and other countries. The White House had warnings 48 hours before the attack, but did nothing and did not alert embassy staff. Clinton and Obama can say that they are "sorry" about the deaths, but they did nothing to prevent them.
      Maybe if Obama did not skip more than 50% of the Intel Security Briefings, he might have known to prepare. Golf, fund-raising, and being on Letterman are more important to Obama. He is a disgrace.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • dougp

      Uhh, that report in the independent is riddled with mistakes. It even misidentifies two of the dead as marines. It cites unnamed sources about a warning; unnamed sources is meaningless. And the warning could have been anything. Report if it existed could have been anything. This story is junk.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nate

    the only question that matters is, at what point do we accept we're in a holy war, and begin fighting back?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      iIt's going to be impossible to get the economy back on track and still fight the war against the terrorists. It would be nice to pull out of Afghanistan ignore the middle east problems cut spending and create jobs focus on the economy. I think it's too late!

      September 13, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LG

    When will the west understand that for 1400 years, Islamist have fought and killed one another over the slightest denigration of the word in the Koran.
    The western countries should stop immigrating these people and avoid them at all costs.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Al Razi

    with out a doubt it was planned, I t was planned years ago in Doha, Qatar by these so called rebel terrorists who sucked U.S. and Nato to bomb the hell out of Libya to hand over power to them and now you see the results. You made your bed, now lay in it.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JOSH P.

    the answer is quite easy,Get our troops out of the middle East and guarantee that these will not give a damn about a country call America,they never used to attack us before so their religion is not the problem,They used to attack the French and British just the same,when these 2 were dividing and conquering.

    Leave these people alone and used diplomacy to Steal their Oil,which is what it,s about to begin with,no need to have soldiers in their lands in order to get that oil cheap.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. blinky

    You have to figure that the attack was planned because it was so well-coordinated, long-lasting and effective. A big four-hour attack like this is a perfect symbol on the anniversary of 9/11, not the obvious 10th anniversary last year but the next one, this year, only months before the election, hoping to throw it one way or another and in any case distract attention away from it. Make the attack a little off from what was expected, and don't give it away with any "chatter."

    September 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. steve1963

    It is beginning to look like the whole "movie" was staged to stir up anti-American resentment and be the excuse for these cold-blooded attacks. The liberal media refuses to really pursue this angle because they are too busy promoting Obama and slamming Romney. I still find it refreshing that so many comments on this CNN news story are seeing through a lot of this non-sense and are beginning to weigh in on truth. Hopefully, this will continue on election day and we oust the worst president the US has ever seen.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • RockinSA

      A bit to Manchurian Candidate for my liking there. I think the idiot that made the film just happened to pick the worst possible thing he could do (and still be classified human) and he did it at the worst possible time. Kind of like yawning outdoors; no matter how big the world is, that bug always seems to pick that moment to find your little, bitty mouth and fly in it.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick in Wisconsin

      Good God, you guys always slam the "liberal media" when they report something that's good for Obama and bad for Romney. Haven't you guys noticed that they do the exact same for Romney? The reason your candidate will lose in November is not because of a liberal media conspiracy. It's because you all are too childish to take responsibility for your actions.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve1963

      I seem to hit a bit of nerve of yours Patrick. Truth does hurt.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Leigh2

    So if there were troops protecting the perimeter, what I want to know is why things weren't beefed up even more if there was even a hint that something more might go down on the 9-11? Were these troops actually armed? Why weren't there tanks present? (IN my estimation, that area should have always been prepared for anything!) That's what I want to know! And don't blame some stupid film for people being murdered. Blame those who are responsible for the deed. No excuses! There's no equivalency when people have lost their lives! NONE!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      I meant 9-11 'anniversary'.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Penny Wright

    The movie was made by a Coptic Christian Egyptian, not an American.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suz Z

      The word Copt means egyptian so he couldn't be and Egyptian Christian Egyptian.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Matt Bolcer

    Who is in charge here? Barack Obama seems more interested in attending the Letteramn show and various campaign fund-rasing appearances than focusing on the situation. It's all reactionism, and his past absences at better than half his security briefings is just more proof that all he cares about is his election.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      That's no going to bode well for him – politically. By not being more Presidential and attending to what he needed to do in the first place and having a presence at the WH and be in on the intelligence briefings, this may have just cost him the election. Oh, the irony. But the bottom line is 4 fine Americans are dead. That's the true horror of this.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary S.

      U R right , He is the stupidest Person I have ever saw.He wants the perks that come with being a president, He had a chance tobe the first Black President to change things but he Screwed up, i know his skin is black but he is not a black man who cares about the black race, he is a Muslim black man, he is not what I think of as a Black Baptist or black catholic, or black what ever he is a black muslim who believes the same as Bin Laden did,he wants to destroy the American people just like the ones that took over the embassy & claims it is on count of a film Bull Sh–, I know he is not the Anti Christ but I believe he is working for Him who ever him is, If he does not get re-elected he will be known as the most hated president ever He should be ashamed that he let the black race down, he is pit a ful I would rather have Jimmy Carter rather than this Joke,

      September 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. WakeUpAmerica

    Why is there no outage about the FACT that Obama just gave $2 billion to the Muslim Brotherhood who just attacked our embassy and four Americans!!!! The POTUS is funding our enemies! Wake up America.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick in Wisconsin

      Where the Hell did you read that those attackers belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you even know how to READ?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leigh2

      What next? Things may get worse for us here and our own safety. As long as our own leaders make apologies and exhibit no back bone, we won't be safe, and I suspect tragedy in our own country will rear it's evil and ugly head once again. These folks over there hate our guts, people. To them, we are the enemy. This administration seems to have bent over backwards for them because we want to be seen as their 'friends', and this is how we are repaid ~ with deaths of our own folks by an extreme radical group. What part of this do some folks in this country not seem to get?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve1963

      Note to readers: Patrick in Wisconsin is an Obama staffer.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. detroitjames

    Americans move on with their lives. These people have been circling a fire for the past three days.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Tom

    What if the film maker was in on this plot as well. Makes it a full circle conspiracy.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suz Z

      I agree. There was a christian afghan girl who was set-up by a muslim cleric. The cleric ripped pages out of the Quran and put them in her bag and then reported her to police. She was sent to jail, but was recently released on bail. She may have been 12 years old. I think one muslim member outed the cleric. So maybe it wasn't a coptic christian who made the film, but if it was you cannot blame them. They have been suffering at the hands of the muslim brotherhood for years and this administration along with others have never really done much to show condemnation.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
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