Witnesses describe the Benghazi attack by Ansar al-Shariah
It began around nightfall on Sept. 11 with around 150 bearded gunmen, some wearing the Afghan-style tunics favored by Islamic militants, sealing off the streets leading to the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They set up roadblocks with pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, according to witnesses.
The trucks bore the logo of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful local group of Islamist militants who worked with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi, the main city in eastern Libya and birthplace of the uprising last year that ousted Moammar Gadhafi after a 42-year dictatorship.
There was no sign of a spontaneous protest against an American-made movie denigrating Islam's Prophet Muhammad. But a lawyer passing by the scene said he saw the militants gathering around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film. Within an hour or so, the assault began, guns blazing as the militants blasted into the compound.
One of the consulate's private Libyan guards said masked militants grabbed him and beat him, one of them calling him "an infidel protecting infidels who insulted the prophet."
The witness accounts gathered by The Associated Press give a from-the-ground perspective for the sharply partisan debate in the U.S. over the attack that left U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. They corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault. But they also suggest the militants may have used the film controversy as a cover for the attack.
The ambiguity has helped fuel the election-time bickering in the United States ever since.
The Obama administration has sent out muddled messages whether it was a planned attack or a mob protest that got out of control. A day after the attack, President Barack Obama referred to "acts of terror." He told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview aired the following Sunday that he believed those involved "were looking to target Americans from the start."
Within 24 hours of the attack, both the embassy in Tripoli and the CIA station chief sent word to Washington that it was a planned militant attack. Still, days later, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said the attack began as a spontaneous protest over the film.
Yasser el-Sirri, a former Egyptian militant who runs the Islamic Observation Center in London closely tracking jihadi groups, said the attack "had nothing to do with the film but it was a coincidence that served the (militants') purpose."
He believes the ambassador was the target and the attackers may have been inspired by an al-Qaida call to avenge the death of a top Libyan jihadist on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001. But he offered no firm evidence that was the motive.The witnesses include neighbors who saw the group set up roadblocks prior to the attack. Like other media reports from the scene, they all contradict the assertions that this was a mob of movie critics. The administration has not put its story out yet, and will apparently wait until after the election. That probably says something about their conclusions. It is likely that the AP and Fox News have beat them to the punch on what really happened. What seems pretty clear is that the mob of movie critics narrative is not sustainable.