The attack followed a violent protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over a low-budget anti-Muslim film made in the United States, and it initially appeared that the assault on the Benghazi consulate was another spontaneous response. But senior U.S. officials and Middle East analysts raised questions Wednesday about the motivation for the Benghazi attack, noting that it involved the use of a rocket-propelled grenade and followed an al-Qaeda call to avenge the death of a senior Libyan member of the terrorist network.
Libyan officials and a witness said the attackers took advantage of a protest over the film to launch their assault.
Stevens, 52, and the others appear to have been killed inside the temporary consulate, possibly by a rocket-propelled grenade, according to officials briefed on the assault.
On Wednesday, administration officials described a fast-moving assault on the Benghazi compound, which quickly overwhelmed Libyan guards and U.S. security forces, and separated the Americans from the ambassador they were supposed to protect. U.S. personnel lost touch with Stevens just minutes into the attack, about 10 p.m. Benghazi time. They didn’t see him again until his body was returned to U.S. custody, sometime around dawn.
“Frankly, we are not clear on the circumstances between the time he got separated from the group inside the burning building, to the time we were notified he was in Benghazi hospital,” a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told reporters. “We were not able to see him until his body was returned to us at the airport.”
Stevens, based in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, happened to be visiting the U.S. outpost in Benghazi at the time of the attack. Officials said he was one of perhaps 25 or 30 people inside the U.S. consulate compound and its annex at 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. Washington time), when unidentified gunmen began firing from outside.
Within 15 minutes, the officials said, the gunmen had entered the compound, and set its main building on fire. Three people were inside: Stevens, Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information management officer, and a Department of State security officer. As the building filled with dark smoke, the three became separated.
The security officer escaped, then went back inside with another officer. They found Smith dead inside, and pulled his body out. But they could not find Stevens, before being driven out of the building by smoke and gunfire.
Thirty minutes later, U.S. security officers tried again to enter the burning building. They withdrew, and eventually sheltered with all remaining personnel in an annex building. There, the personnel were under seige for two hours, taking fire that killed two more Americans and wounded three others.