“They said, ‘We are Muslims defending the prophet. We are defending Islam,’ ” Libyan television journalist Firas Abdelhakim said in an interview.
The gunmen soon opened fire, entered the compound and set the consulate’s buildings aflame. Hours later, the compound was overrun and four Americans were dead. Among them were Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, 52, and Sean Smith, a State Department employee.
The chaotic scene was described by senior Obama administration officials, Libyan government officials and witnesses. Details about the attack were still emerging late Wednesday. Key facts remain unclear, particularly how Stevens died and how his body wound up at a Benghazi hospital.
Even as evidence was being assembled, the early indications were that the assault had been planned and the attackers had cannily taken advantage of the protest at the consulate.
“Was this a spontaneous act of violence, was this capitalizing on the opportunity posed by [a protest], or was this separate and apart from al-Qaeda?” asked Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House intelligence committee. “Any of those are possible,” Schiff said, but accounts of the attack and the firepower employed “indicate something more than a spontaneous protest.”
Others seemed more certain. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the intelligence committee, said the assault appeared to be well planned and well organized, with attackers executing military-like maneuvers.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said, “We haven’t seen any significant indication of al-Qaeda involvement in this attack,” adding that there are conflicting indications of the extent to which it was planned. “We’ve seen some indications that point us in that direction and others that do not,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. He declined to elaborate, except to say that U.S. spy agencies had seen no intelligence indicating such an attack was coming.
U.S. officials said the CIA, the FBI and other agencies were mobilizing to identify and pursue the attackers, an effort that could be aided by U.S. drones that have continued to conduct surveillance flights over the country since Tripoli fell 13 months ago.
Officials said the assault may have been carried out by an affiliate of al-Qaeda, perhaps seeking to avenge the death of a Libyan who had served as the terrorist group’s No. 2 operative until he was killed in Pakistan in June by a U.S. drone strike.
In a somber appearance in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama issued an unusually emotional warning, saying, “Make no mistake, justice will be done.”