U.S. Suspects Attack On Ambassador To Libya Was Planned

Though they may have occurred on the same day within hours of each other, but the initial speculation is that there are vast differences between the protests in Cairo and the attack that resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others:

WASHINGTON —The Obama administration suspects that the fiery attack in Libya that killed the American ambassador and three other diplomats may have been planned rather than a spontaneous mob getting out of control, American officials said Wednesday.

Officials in Washington studying the events of the past 24 hours have focused on the differences between the protests on the American embassy in Cairo and the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, the Libyan city where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans were killed.

The protesters in Cairo appeared to be a genuinely spontaneous unarmed mob angered by an anti-Islam video produced in the United States. By contrast, it appeared the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Intelligence reports are inconclusive at this point, officials said, but indications suggest the possibility that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.


Officials in Washington said no warning had been distributed inside the United States government in the days prior to the assault on the consulate, either on the possibility of an attack to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary or more specifically that a plot might be afoot in Libya. That suggests that American intelligence was not picking up unusual communications or other evidence pointing to a planned attack.

About 24 hours before the consulate attack, however, Al Qaeda posted to militant forums on the Web a video in which its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, acknowledged the death in an American  drone strike in June of his Libyan deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and called on Libyans to avenge the death.

If it were established that the deaths of the American diplomats resulted not from the spontaneous anger of a crowd about an insult to Islam but from a long-planned Qaeda plot, that might sharply shift perceptions of the events. But officials cautioned that the issue was still under urgent study.

For the moment, at least, there appear to be conflicting versions of how Ambassador Stevens died, including one that involves an attack that took place in some unspecified location away from Consular grounds:

An unidentified Libyan official in Benghazi told Reuters that Mr. Stevens and three staff members were killed in Benghazi “when gunmen fired rockets at them.” It was not clear where in the city the attack took place. The Libyan official said the ambassador was being driven from the consulate building to a safer location when gunmen opened fire, Reuters said.

Agence France-Presse quoted the Libyan Interior Ministry as saying that Mr. Stevens and the three staff members were killed when a mob attacked the consulate in Benghazi. Al Jazeera’s English-language Web site said Mr. Stevens died of smoke inhalation after a mob set fire to the building, and a Libyan physician who treated Mr. Stevens at the hospital was quoted by The Associated Press as saying he had tried to revive him for 90 minutes.

In Italy, the Web site of the newspaper Corriere della Sera showed images of what it said was the American Consulate in Benghazi ablaze with men carrying automatic rifles and waving V-for-victory signs, silhouetted against the burning buildings. One photograph showed a man closely resembling Mr. Stevens apparently unconscious, his face seeming to be smudged with smoke and his eyes closed.

Some of this, no doubt, is due to the “fog of war” effect, especially in a city where there isn’t a large U.S. media presence. At the very least, though, the fact that weapons like “rockets,” which I assume likely refers to RPGs, may have been involved in this attack suggests strongly that this was much more than just some spontaneous attack over an obscure YouTube video, or that someone was using the protests as cover for something more nefarious. As I noted in the comments to Dave Schuler’s post, Benghazi has been the site of several attacks against western targets in recent months and the Eastern deserts of Libya are also an area where forces sympathetic to al Qaeda that were part of the Libyan rebel forces reportedly set up camp in the months after the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, so that would be one rather obvious suspect there especially given the fact that yesterday was September 11th.

If this is true, then it may indicate that there’s a far more serious problem in Libya than just a bunch of people upset about a movie they’ve never actually seen.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. george says:

    If nothing else, it helps explain why such an obvious troll as Jones gets results … I wonder if the rioters rolled their eyes and muttered to themselves about having to respond to such weak material.

  2. mattb says:

    If this is true, then it may indicate that there’s a far more serious problem in Libya than just a bunch of people upset about a movie they’ve never actually seen.

    If this is the case, I think this could be far worse for the Obama administration than if this had simply been over the movie.

    It ceases to be a story of “Muslim’s acting like Muslims” (I’m intentionally being flippant here) and turns it into a case of the people we helped liberate turning around and biting our hands.

    The US population is not presently interested in NE adventurism. Obama got a pass on Libya because it was seen as a just and bloodless intervention. I fear that an organized opposition will start to remind people of Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that can only benefit Romney.

  3. @mattb:

    Well that’s the problem actually, because during the Libyan rebellion there were a lot of people who came from other parts of the Muslim world to fight, many of them with not so noble motives. One of those groups included the same groups sympathetic of al Qaeda that went to Iraq to fight against the U.S. after we invaded in 2003. It’s never been clear what happened to those people after the Qaddafi government fell.

  4. Anderson says:

    Yah, especially with the 9/11 date, I was suspecting this was fomented by some al-Qaeda group.

    Tho rocket launchers are probably a lot more common in Benghazi than they are in Cleveland.

  5. mattb says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Exactly… and the line of attack for Romney (or at least the one I would take) is to use the fact that we supported (and potentally armed) Al Qaeda as a proof of how “out of his league” Obama was. If he really wants to go for the jugular he could even intone that supporting Al Qaeda was always the goal of the operation.

    I’m not saying that this is a fair (or remotely accurate) attack. But it’s their one hope of trying to reclaim the higher ground on foreign policy. And this is one area where he might just peel off some war weary “independents.”

  6. Mike says:

    There have been a couple reports that 2 of the deaths (not the Ambassador) took place while some unnamed U.S. security forces (presumably DSS agents, although a story I just read indicated they were Marine Security Guards) were attempting to evacuate U.S. staff members from a safe house away from the consulate that they had fled to after the consulate was attacked. If that is indeed the case it would be pretty hard evidence that this was premeditated as spontaneous demonstrations/riots at a diplomatic facility generally don’t involve ambushing a small convoy (presumably trying to keep a low profile) outside a (again, presumably low profile) safe house in some random apartment building or residential area or whatever across town away from the diplomatic facility.

    Re: the al-Qaeda linked groups/”people we helped liberate turning around and biting us”/etc., it’s worth mentioning that eastern Libya in general and Benghazi specifically is one of the most pro-U.S. parts of Libya…remember that the rebellion was based out of Benghazi and that the spectre of loyalist forces massacring residents there is what ostensibly drove the U.S. led intervention. That said, it is also home to quite a few of the Salafi/fundamentalist groups, and these groups have been trying to stir up trouble since they were soundly defeated at the ballot box in the recent elections. So combine that with the fact that there have been other less severe attacks against U.S. and other diplomatic missions in Benghazi over the past few months and it seems very plausible that this was planned out ahead of time.

  7. Mike says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention the obvious…occurring on the anniversary of 9/11 is a pretty glaring coincidence.

  8. @mattb:

    If Obama were running against a peacenik or an isolationist he might have a problem.

    I’m not sure a guy who wants more fights in more places really wins.

  9. Romney is doubling down on US intervention here.

    Apparently the problem was not enough America in Libya, not too much.

  10. Frankly, it makes the statements made by Romney even more glaringly wrong.
    If this an planned attack, it’s an act of war.
    He may get points later for making an argument that Obama set the stage, but real time events have to be analyzed and responded to with some sort of plan, not just spouting off. To do so is incredibly rash and does not bode well for any type of cautious FP.

  11. legion says:

    Has AQ or anyone else actually claimed credit yet? I’d think that would be a pretty clear piece of evidence one way or the other, and unless they’re planning more attacks today there’s no reason to delay announcing…

  12. legion says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Well that’s the problem actually, because during the Libyan rebellion there were a lot of people who came from other parts of the Muslim world to fight, many of them with not so noble motives.

    Indeed. The idea that random dirtbags could get their hands on a working RPG in that sort of environment is not unreasonable at all.

  13. Trumwill says:

    If I were a betting man, I’d bet that they’re with the army we’re against and not the hand we’re feeding. This suggests “army” to me.

  14. Clanton says:

    It seems that both embassies were way under defended and lacked walls, fences, and enough weapons to keep out an attack. All embassies should have sufficient armed forces, weapons, and underground bunkers. Backup military forces, including the Seals, air support, and artillery should be no more than an hour away and ready to go in.

  15. Patti Fjerstad says:

    .The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was a planned terrorist attack, according to London-based thinktank Quilliam .”According to information obtained by Quilliam – from foreign sources and from within Benghazi – we have reason to believe that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi came to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago.”

    US sources told CNN that the rocket assault on the consulate was planned and that the attackers used the protest outside the co
    nsulate as a diversion.

    The sources did not specify whether the attackers instigated the protest or merely took advantage of it. They did not believe that Stevens was explicitly targeted.

    Quilliam, which has strong ties to Libya, claimed that 20 militants prepared for a military assault in the wake of the attack. They also noted that rocket-propelled grenade launcher RPG7 was present.

    “These are acts committed by uncontrollable jihadist groups,” said Noman Benotman, president of Quiloliam.