What we know about the Libya attack
The US Consulate in Benghazi Libya after an attack by Muslim extremists killed four Americans. (CNN Photo)
October 10th, 2012
06:11 PM ET

What we know about the Libya attack

By Mallory Simon and Jason Hanna

Some publicly known details of the September 11 killings of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, have changed in the weeks since the attack.

U.S. officials initially said the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a nearby U.S. annex came as protesters outside the consulate rallied against an online video that unflatteringly portrays Islam's Prophet Mohammed. That explanation seems to have shifted as investigations progressed.

The following is the latest information that CNN has gleaned about the attack, and some unanswered questions.

Was the attack spontaneous?

Gunmen attacked the consulate around 9:40 p.m., after Stevens retired to his room at the complex following an evening meeting with a Turkish diplomat, two senior State Department officials told reporters this week.

Dead after the gun attack and fire at the complex were Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Smith, who officials said died of smoke inhalation. The two others - security contractors and former U.S. Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods - died of wounds they suffered in an attack on a nearby annex.

U.S. officials initially said gunmen began attacking the complex during a protest against the inflammatory online video, after a similar protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day. U.S. sources said it appeared the attackers used the Benghazi protest as a diversion to launch the attack.

But on September 28, Shawn Turner, spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said the latest information indicated the attack was wasn't spontaneous, but rather deliberate and organized, perpetrated by "extremists."

"In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo," Turner said. "As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists."

On Tuesday, asked whether the attack was a spontaneous assault taking advantage of a demonstration, as originally asserted by Obama administration officials, a senior State Department official said: "That was not our conclusion. I'm not saying that we had a conclusion."

How did the attack unfold?

On Tuesday, two senior State Department officials emphasized that there was no prior indication such an assault was imminent, and said there was nothing unusual that day in the hours before the attack.

The first sign of a problem came 40 minutes after Stevens retired to his room, the officials said. Diplomatic security agents heard loud talking outside the compound, along with gunfire and explosions.

One of the officials said "dozens of armed men" marauded from building to building in the complex and later fired mortars on the nearby U.S. annex.

At the compound, which had four buildings, Stevens and two of his security personnel took refuge in a fortified room that the attackers were able to penetrate, one official said.

The attackers doused the building with diesel fuel and set it ablaze, and the three men decided to leave the safe haven and move to a bathroom to be able to breathe, according to the official. Stevens became separated from the security personnel in the chaos and smoke, and eventually turned up at a Benghazi hospital, where he was declared dead.

Hospital personnel found his cell phone in his pocket and began calling numbers, which is how U.S. officials learned where he was, the State Department officials said.

The complex had an armed security force of about nine people when the attack began, according to sources familiar with the incident. But that force was outmanned by the attackers, and no reasonable security presence could have fended off the assault, the two State Department officials said Tuesday.

Doherty, Woods and other security personnel were at the annex when the attack on the main compound began. The team from the annex went to the compound and rounded up consulate staff. The team also recovered the body of Smith, who died of smoke inhalation at the complex.

After the team went back to the annex, the annex came under attack, with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars among the heavy firepower used, officials told CNN.

"It was during that (second attack) that two additional U.S. personnel were killed and two others were wounded," a senior administration official said last month. Those two victims were later confirmed to be Doherty and Woods.

Were proper security measures in place?

A source familiar with Stevens' thinking told CNN that in the months leading up to his death, the ambassador worried about what he called the security threats in Benghazi and a rise in Islamic extremism.

The timing of those concerns, first reported by CNN, coincided with a request by the State Department's top security official in Libya asking for extra security for the consulate in Benghazi.

The official received no response from superiors, according to documents obtained by CNN.

Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer in Libya until July, had conveyed concerns about the Libyan government's ability overall to protect American diplomatic facilities.

Moreover, he sent two cables to State Department headquarters in March and again in July requesting additional security agents for the Benghazi post, but did not receive any response, according to a summary of his interview with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Democrats that was obtained by CNN.

Nordstrom told the committee that Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi "artificially low." Nordstrom said she generally believed that extra security was unnecessary because there was a residential safe haven to fall back on in an emergency, according to the summary.

She thought the "best course of action was to assign three agents" to the Benghazi post, the summary quoted Nordstrom as saying.

Nordstrom said the facility usually had three or four agents. But he also told the committee that Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy issued a memo in December requiring five agents be assigned to Benghazi.

Senior State Department officials have said security personnel in Benghazi were outmanned and outgunned during the attack and that no reasonable security presence could have successfully fended it off.

"The lethality and the number of armed people is unprecedented. There had been no attacks like that anywhere in Libya - Tripoli, Benghazi or anywhere - in the time that we had been there. And so it is unprecedented, in fact, it would be very, very hard to find precedent for an attack like (this) in recent diplomatic history," a senior agency official said.

Who was behind the attack?

A pro-al Qaeda group responsible for a previous armed assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is the chief suspect in the attack, sources tracking militant Islamist groups in eastern Libya say.

They also note that the attack immediately followed a call from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for revenge for the death in June of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior Libyan member of the terror group.

The group suspected to be behind the assault, the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, first surfaced in May when it claimed responsibility for an attack on the International Red Cross office in Benghazi. The next month the group claimed responsibility for detonating an explosive device outside the U.S. Consulate and later released a video of that attack.

Noman Benotman, once a leading member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and now based at the Quilliam Foundation in London, said, "An attack like this would likely have required preparation. This would not seem to be merely a protest which escalated."

Benotman, who had earlier warned of the likelihood of renewed attacks against U.S. interests in Libya, said on Tuesday that the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades is a prime suspect in the Benghazi attack. He said he believes it is likely the deadly attack was also linked to a video statement released by al-Zawahiri on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the video, al-Zawahiri confirmed the death of al-Libi, a prominent member of the al Qaeda-linked group, adding: "His blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders."

No names have been released for those responsible for carrying out the attack.

However, a series of arrests was made in the wake of the attack, and after President Obama said he would not rest until those responsible were brought to justice.

Mohamed al-Magariaf, the head of Libya's General National Congress, said around 50 people were arrested, though another senior government official said the number was not that high.

The official said as many as 50 people have been brought in for questioning, but not all of them were arrested. They were people who were at a protest outside the consulate, but there was no indication yet that they took part in the violence, he said.

Those arrests were confirmed by Mustafa Abushagur, the prime minister of Libya, who added that other people may have been involved and the investigation is ongoing.

Two Tunisians were also detained for questioning in Turkey, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leona Panetta said there was a connection between the arrests and the attack.

"We know there is some connection, but, frankly, we really don't have all the specifics," Panetta said.

The Tunisians, who had been on a watch list provided by the United States to Turkish authorities, were being questioned at the request of the United States, a U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation said.

CNN's Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott, Jomana Karadsheh, Nic Robertson, Paul Cruickshank, Tim Lister, Ashley Fantz, Susan Candiotti, Ross Levitt and CNN National Security Contributor Fran Townsend contributed to this report.

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Filed under: Congress • Diplomacy • FBI • Issa • Libya • Libya • Secretary of State • Security Brief • State Department • US Ambassador
soundoff (31 Responses)
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  5. Rahim

    Peirs Morgan,

    Everyone blames that President Obama wasn't aware that the Ambassador was killed in Libya. Libya is a country that has their own government. They are supposed to take care of the security of the Ambassador, embassy and employees. They are responsible .Libya is not part of the United States. It is difficult for any president of the U.S. to keep security in the embassy. Libyan people and government are responsible for it. Republicans are using this as a negative thing for the President.

    October 25, 2012 at 12:35 am | Reply
  6. lance

    the know it all take no blame obama at work again – 4 more years.

    October 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  7. Tracy

    Four people needlessly dead, an administration fabricating stories, and CNN thinks Romney's abortion comment is more important. Pathetic.

    October 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • jonathan

      Somebody is pathetic.....

      October 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  8. Taliban Dick

    Stink like sheep and goat.

    October 11, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
  9. Susan

    Apparently my comment didn't get posted. So I will try again. It is gross moral terpitude for CNN not to have this as the lead story on their website or news channel. It is clear by how far into your website I had to go to find this story that you choose politics above morals. I only look at your website and watch your channel to make comments such a this to reach anyone with a moral compass within CNN. As I said at the start of his comment, this stories placement is gross moral terpitude!!!!

    October 11, 2012 at 10:13 am | Reply
  10. Susan

    I don't want to be accused by CNN for using incorrect English in my prior response. I meant to say gross moral turpitude.

    October 11, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  11. Sitting In Disbelief

    I am continually shocked by CNN's absolutely unreal ability to bury this shocking story of this cover up and scandal. Surely there must be someone at CNN who wishes to properly and accurately report on this story and it should be headlines on the web. Front page CNN!!! This is the kind of thing you guys should be all over but instead choose to bury it. Where is your even remote desire to act like a real news source. And Cooper Anderson seriously did you not actually watch the hearings today to think it was all political posturing and no real answers came out.....might need to play the tape again it was incredible what was known when. For your educated public who watched the hearings please try to pay attention to real news of the event. Ignore please the political posturing and report on the facts that were presented in the testimony. It was shocking these guys were on the phone with the consulate all during the attack. I give Piers Morgan some credit for taking on Wasserman Smith who again shows no ability to decipher the truth in a situation. Her bold face lying is just so intolerable. They knew exactly what had happened. Full mind CNN Full mind....."major scandal goes on front page."

    October 11, 2012 at 12:04 am | Reply
    • MelaToday

      I totally agree with you. 100% I had to do a "search" in order to find it. If a CNN correspondent had died during that attack, would they have swept it under the rug so coolly?

      October 11, 2012 at 6:11 am | Reply
    • cjb

      I agree. This should be the lead story on every major media site. This is what Americans care about. Instead CNN chooses to do fluff pieces and ignores this breaking news so we just turn the set off.

      October 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • gabrielG

      No, you are upset that CNN won't pick up on the Romney endorsed conspiracy theories.

      October 11, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
      • Reality Check

        President Obama and his administration LIED and COVERED-UP that terrorists attacked the US Embassy in Benghazi and they murdered 4 Americans. Obama knew the truth yet lied to the American people and the entire world with his UN speech.

        There is no conspiracy theory. Just political hacks for Obama and the complicit media who are unwilling or unable to see the truth.

        October 12, 2012 at 11:46 am |
      • jonathan

        Try again. Conspiracy theories are just that.

        October 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Shady1

    This story left out a lot of info . Stevens ask for and didn't get more security . There were 230 attacks in one year in Libya . 20 were close to where Stevens was . Obama and his administration lied . They knew 24 hours after the attack why it happened and who did it yet they blamed a video .WHY isn't this front page news ? Al Qaeda is on the rise and the lies and cover up of this attack is amazing .

    October 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • gabrielG

      Obama did not lie. About anything.

      Your cult worshipping supervillain on the other hand....

      October 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  13. tj

    After 4 years Bush is still being blamed. Oboma has dropped the ball on everything. he has turned the middle east over to the Muslim brother hood( ie) al quaida. then when al quaida attacks on the 9/11 anneversery they deny it. it's so funny to watch them squirm. The clear thinkers can see through the lies. thats why sites like cnn are going down in ratings. people dont want lies and cover up. keep that blame Bush thing going it;s working well

    October 10, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Reply
    • gabrielG

      That has to be the dumbest thing ever posted.

      Bush started two wars, and then paid for them with a credit card. Bush.

      Can you understand this??

      Prolly not...

      October 11, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  14. Seriously

    Well, if there was anyone with any doubt that CNN is in Ob's pocket, here's the proof. Had to do a search for anything on this issue! And Mr. Nobody's Fool, your comment is so pathetic, you are Everybody's Fool. Anyone with any sense knew from the day of the attack that this was not about a movie. And please stop talking about Bush, this is 2012, please comment on your President.

    October 10, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
    • nobody's fool

      O please, do keep talking.

      You prove why public education is a necessity.

      Next time, don't have your 12 year old kid write comebacks for you....looser lol

      October 10, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
    • chase

      You are a moron seriously..

      Actions of a president last for decades.

      34 ID Redbulls. Bleed for your country, before you open your mouth. Seriously.

      October 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Reply
      • gabrielG

        He knows he is a moron..

        But thanks for reminding him anyway!!

        October 10, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Heidi

      Wow, I just wanted some info on what happened today with the hearings on the embassy attack in Libya and I actually had to put it into the CNN search engine. This is a major news story and I should not have to do a search for it – it should be on the front page. I don't care about Sandusky. Wake up CNN, I'm finding another news source.

      October 10, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Reply
      • Jane Svoboda

        Why not on home page? Why do you have to WORK to find this?

        October 10, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  15. Chris Hopkins

    Why is this story not on the home page? I just happened to find it several pages deep. . .this is important information!

    October 10, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • Jay

      Because CNN needs to give Obama time to circle the wagons and form a new story. Obama was caught in another lie where Americans died. Doesn't have good optics.

      October 10, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
      • nobody's fool

        Yea, bush cared so much about our troops, he sent them to have their legs blown off in an oil war.


        October 10, 2012 at 7:43 pm |

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