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Many Questions Remain After U.S. Consulate Attack


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In this hour of the program, we remember Christopher Stevens, the first sitting U.S. ambassador killed in more than 30 years. And we'll explore how the attacks in Libya and Egypt have become fodder for political debate.

CORNISH: First, what we do and don't know about yesterday's assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which took the lives of Ambassador Stevens, a consulate office named Sean Smith and two other Americans. Speaking earlier today, President Obama stressed that the majority of Libyans stood with the U.S.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans. Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety, and they carried Ambassador Stevens' body to the hospital, where we tragically learned that he had died.

BLOCK: There are many unanswered questions as FBI investigators make their way to Libya. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us to talk through some of those questions. And, Dina, there's been a lot of speculation today about what happened, whether the attack was planned and who was behind it. What have you learned so far?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, U.S. officials are reluctant to say, at this stage, that the attack was planned, but they did provide some more details on what happened. These are what are called first reports, so they could change. But apparently, the consulate started taking small arms fire about 10 p.m. Libya time last night.

And then after about 15 minutes, rocket-propelled grenades were fired into the consulate's main building. And there were three people in there: Ambassador Stevens, an American consulate officer and a security guard. The building, by that time, had caught fire. There was lots of smoke. And basically, as they were trying to leave the building, they lost track of the ambassador. And this American consulate official apparently died in the building.

BLOCK: And what happened after that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there was a two-hour firefight, and it wasn't until Libyan forces came and helped the U.S. that they were able to regain control of the compound. They found out later that the ambassador had actually been taken out of the main building during the firefight. The Libyans called U.S. officials, and that's how they found out that he had been taken to a hospital. It's unclear whether he died in the hospital or before that.

And the next time U.S. officials saw the ambassador was in the Benghazi airport when the Libyans brought his remains. Officials said they don't know how the ambassador got to the hospital. There are some pictures on the Web that officials confirmed were the ambassador, and it looked like local Libyans were trying to help him, carrying him, not dragging him. But we don't know all the details yet.

BLOCK: Dina, another big question is whether there had been threats about such an attack on the consulate. And if so, was security adequate?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, officials said that there was no so-called threat stream ahead of the 9/11 anniversary, and that's their way of saying that there was no specific threat. That said, there's been this pattern over the past couple of months that suggests that anti-Western elements in Benghazi were looking for targets of opportunity.

In May, a visiting U.S. representative was under attack. In June, there was a small explosion outside the U.S. Consulate. After that, the British ambassador was targeted. So against that backdrop, the fact that the Islamists attacked the consulate is not a huge surprise.

What isn't clear is whether it was planned much ahead. It isn't even clear if there were demonstrations like the ones we saw in Egypt against this new movie about the Prophet Muhammad, whether there were demonstrations of any size outside the consulate before the attack happened. They're trying to figure that out.

BLOCK: And, Dina, just briefly, the attack on the consulate did come on September 11, on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. What are you hearing about that timing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they don't right now think that these two events are particularly linked. They didn't have any threat stream. They didn't have any specific intelligence that indicated to them that the consulate needed to have some sort of special security. They - an official said that they had actually looked at the threat stream and looked at the security around the consulate, and they felt it was good enough.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.