TRIPOLI, Libya -- It began around nightfall on Sept. 11 with about 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 pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, witnesses say.
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. 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 United States 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. As that debate roiled, the actual events -- and their meaning -- became somewhat skewed in the mouths of politicians. One assumption often made in the back-and-forth is that if the attack was planned, then it must have been linked to al-Qaida.
Ansar al-Shariah, the group whose members are suspected in the attack, is made up of militants with an al-Qaida-like ideology, but it is not clear whether it has any true ties to the terror organization. Made up mainly of veterans of last year's civil war, it is one of the many powerful, heavily armed militias that operate freely in Libya and in Benghazi, while government control remains weak.
Khaled al-Haddar, the lawyer who passed by the scene as he headed to his nearby home, said he saw the fighters gathering a few youths from among passersby 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," al-Haddar said. He said 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.A precision mortar hit the compound's building at 4 a.m., killing two other Americans.