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 news trickled out slowly the night of the attack, with initial reports overshadowed by the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by protesters angry over the film. It was only the next morning that Stevens’ death was confirmed.
On the day of the attack and the next day, The Associated Press referred to it as a mob attack, based on Libyan officials’ comment that there was a significant unarmed protest at the time. In reporting the following days, AP referred to it as an ‘‘armed attack’’ and detailed its organized nature.
The past week, the AP has gathered accounts from five witnesses, including one of the embassy guards and several people living next door to the consulate compound who were present when the militants first moved in. Most spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals for talking about the attack.
The neighbors all described the militants setting up checkpoints around the compound at about 8 p.m. The State Department’s timeline says the attack itself began at around 9:40 p.m.
Khaled al-Haddar, a lawyer who passed by the scene as he headed to his nearby home, said he saw the fighters gathering a few youths from among passers-by and urged them to chant against the film.
‘‘I am certain they had planned to do something like this, I don’t know if it was hours or days, but it was definitely planned,’’ said al-Haddar. ‘‘From the way they set up the checkpoints and gathered people, it was very professional.’’
The guard said he saw no protesters. He heard a few shouts of ‘‘God is great,’’ then a barrage of automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades began, along with barrages from heavy machine guns mounted on trucks.
The attackers set fire to the main consulate building. Stevens and another staffer, caught inside amid the confusion, died of smoke inhalation.
The attack came from the front and the side. A neighbor whose house is on side of the consulate compound said militants with their faces wrapped in scarves attacking.
Because of the checkpoints, ‘‘it felt like our neighborhood was occupied, no one could get out or in,’’ he said.
The effectiveness of the roadblocks was later revealed in the State Department’s account of the evacuation. It described how the rescue force came under heavy fire and grenade attacks as they tried to leave the consulate area.
They evacuated staffers to a security compound across town, where they continued to come under fire. A precision mortar hit the compound’s building at 4 a.m., killing two other Americans.
Michael reported from Cairo. Osama Alfitory in Benghazi contributed to this report.