40 Minutes in Benghazi
When U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in a flash of hatred in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the political finger-pointing began. But few knew exactly what had happened that night. With the ticktock narrative of the desperate fight to save Stevens, Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz provide answers.
After the fall of Colonel Qaddafi, in 2011, Libya had become an al-Qaeda-inspired, if not al-Qaeda-led, training base and battleground. In the northeastern city of Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, men in blazers and dark glasses wandered about the narrow streets of the Medina, the old quarter, with briefcases full of cash and Browning Hi-Power 9-mm. semi-automatics—the classic killing tool of the European spy. Rent-a-guns, militiamen with AK-47s and no qualms about killing, stood outside the cafés and restaurants where men with cash and those with missiles exchanged business terms.
It was a le Carré urban landscape where loyalties changed sides with every sunset; there were murders, betrayals, and triple-crossing profits to be made in the post-revolution. The police were only as honest as their next bribe. Most governments were eager to abandon the danger and intrigue of Benghazi. By September 2012 much of the international community had pulled chocks and left. Following the kidnapping in Benghazi of seven members of its Red Crescent relief agency, even Iran, one of the leading state sponsors of global terror, had escaped the city.
But Libya was a target-rich environment for American political, economic, and military interests, and the United States was determined to retain its diplomatic and intelligence presence in the country—including an embassy in Tripoli and a mission in Benghazi, which was a linchpin of American concerns and opportunities in the summer of the Arab Spring. Tunisia had been swept by revolution, and so had Egypt. “The United States was typically optimistic in its hope for Libya,” an insider with boots on the ground commented, smiling. “The hope was that all would work out even though the reality of an Islamic force in the strong revolutionary winds hinted otherwise.”
The United States no longer had the resources or the national will to commit massive military manpower to its outposts in remnants of what was once defined as the New World Order. This wasn't a political question, but a statement of reality. The fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism was a brand of warfare that would not be fought with brigades and Bradley armored fighting vehicles. The footprint of the United States in this unsettled country and its ever important but dangerous second city would have to be small and agile.
In 1984, Secretary of State George P. Shultz ordered the convening of an Advisory Panel on Overseas Security to respond to critical threats to American diplomats and diplomatic facilities encountered around the world. The panel was chaired by retired admiral Bobby Ray Inman, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. One of the primary findings of what would become known as the Inman Report was the need for an expanded security force to protect American diplomatic posts overseas, and on August 27, 1986, a new State Department security force and law-enforcement agency, the Diplomatic Security Service, an arm of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), was formed. Another important result from the report was a focus on physical-security enhancements for embassies and consulates. These force-protection specifications, unique in the world of diplomatic security, included blast-proofing innovations in architecture to mitigate the devastating yield of an explosion or other methods of attack, including rocket and grenade fire. These new embassies, known as Inman buildings, incorporated anti-ram walls and fences, gates, vehicle barriers, ballistic window film, and coordinated local guard forces to create impregnable fortresses that could withstand massive explosions and coordinated attempts to breach an embassy's defenses.
For over a decade following the 9/11 attacks, DS managed to contain the fundamentalist fervor intent on inflicting catastrophic damage on America's diplomatic interests around the world—especially in the Middle East. But the wave of civilian unrest that swept through the Arab world in the Arab Spring took the region—and the United States—by surprise. Governments that had been traditional allies of the United States and that had sent police officers to anti-terrorism-assistance training were overthrown in instantaneous and unexpected popular revolutions. Traditionally reliable pro-American regimes were replaced with new governments—some Islamic-centered.
In Libya, Qaddafi's intelligence services had prevented al-Qaeda operatives from establishing nodes inside the country, as well as providing information on known cells and operatives plotting attacks in North Africa. With the dictator's death, the years of secret-police rule came to an end.
J. Christopher Stevens was the foreign-service officer who made sure that American diplomacy in Libya flourished. Chris, as he was called, was a true Arabist; he was known to sign his name on personal e-mails as “Krees” to mimic the way Arabs pronounced his name. Born in Grass Valley, California, in 1960, Chris had developed a passionate love for the Arab world while working for the Peace Corps in Morocco in the mid-1980s. Virtually all of his posts were in the Middle East and in locations that can be best described as dicey. It would be North Africa, however, where Chris Stevens would excel as a diplomat and as a reliable face of American reach. When the United States re-emerged as a political player in Libya, he jumped at the opportunity to work in this new arena for American diplomacy.
Stevens was a greatly admired diplomat, respected by men and women on both sides of the political divide. Personable and self-effacing, he was described, in absolutely complimentary terms, as a “relic,” a practitioner of diplomacy from days past. He achieved agreements and cooperation through interpersonal relationships; he was known to have achieved more over cups of rocket-fuel coffee in a market gathering spot than could ever have been achieved in reams of paperwork or gigabytes' worth of e-mails.
In April 2011, Chris had been dispatched to Benghazi as a special envoy by then secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. On this, his second tour to the country, he would be America's man on the ground in the Arab Spring conflict to oust Qaddafi. Establishing a rapport with the many militias that were battling Qaddafi loyalists required a deft hand and a talent for breaking bread with men in camouflage fatigues who talked about long-standing relationships while walkie-talkies stood on the table next to their plates of hummus and AK-47s were nestled by their feet.
When the civil war was over and Qaddafi's humiliating end completed, Chris was an obvious choice to become ambassador, President Barack Obama's personal representative to the new Libya. Stevens was based in the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, which had recently been reopened as the country emerged from the chaos, fury, and joyous hope of the Arab Spring.
But Tripoli wasn't the sole U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya. The U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, an ad hoc consulate not meeting all of the Inman security requirements, had been hastily set up amid the fluid realities of the Libyan civil war. “Expeditionary Diplomacy” dictated that DS do the best it could without the protections afforded official consulates.
On the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, five DS agents found themselves together in Benghazi protecting the Special Mission Compound and Ambassador Chris Stevens, who planned to be in the city for a week. They were known, as coined so aptly in the field office, as “hump agents.” Inexperienced yet willing to do what they were told and to work the worst shifts, they were the nuts and bolts of the protection backbone. The five men in Benghazi were a mixed bag of over-achievers: former street cops, U.S. Marines, a U.S. Army Iraq-war veteran, and academics. All had under 10 years on the job; some had less than 5.
They will be identified as R., the temporary-duty regional security officer (RSO) who was the senior man among the group; he was on a long-term posting in Libya, borrowed from the RSO's office in Tripoli. A. and B. were junior agents assigned temporary duty in Benghazi. C. and D. were young agents who constituted Ambassador Stevens's ad hoc protective detail, and who had flown with him from Tripoli.
In the post-9/11 world, DS men and women on the job no longer learned by being hump agents in a field office and flying from one city to another inside the United States to help out protecting the Dalai Lama on a Monday and a NATO foreign minister taking his family to Disneyland on a Friday. The new DS sent its newest agents into the eye of the storm, in Afghanistan and Kurdistan, where they could learn under fire. Like those locales, Benghazi was an assignment where there were no wrong and right decisions—only issues of reaction and survival. It was an assignment that would require each man to utilize the resourcefulness and think-on-your-feet instincts that DS was so good in fostering in its young agents.
Although trained for every worst-case scenario imaginable, no agent ever expects it to happen, but each knows that when things start to go bad they go bad very quickly. In truth, time stands still for those engaged in the fight, and how quickly things go south is known only to those who have been there and done that. Who lives and dies depends a great deal on training, teamwork, and fate.
2102 hours: benghazi, libya
The Libyan security guard at the compound's main gate, Charlie-1, sat inside his booth happily earning his 40 Libyan dinars ($32 U.S.) for the shift. It wasn't great money, clearly not as much as could be made in the gun markets catering to the Egyptians and Malians hoping to start a revolution with coins in their pockets, but it was a salary and it was a good job in a city where unemployment was plague-like. The guards working for the Special Mission Compound tried to stay alert throughout the night, but it was easier said than done. To stay awake, some chain-smoked the cheap cigarettes from China that made their way to North Africa via Ghana, Benin, and Togo. The nicotine helped, but it was still easy to doze off inside their booths and posts. Sleeping on duty was risky. The DS agents routinely made spot checks on the guard force in the middle of the night. These unarmed Libyan guards were the compound's first line of defense—the trip wire.
All appeared quiet and safe. The feeling of security was enhanced at 2102 hours when an SSC (Supreme Security Council—a coalition of individual and divergently minded Libyan militias) patrol vehicle arrived. The tan Toyota Hilux pickup, with an extended cargo hold, decorated in the colors and emblem of the SSC, pulled off to the side of the road in front of Charlie-1. The driver shut off the engine. He wasn't alone—the darkened silhouette of another man was seen to his right. The pickup sported twin Soviet-produced 23-mm. anti-aircraft guns—the twin-barreled cannons were lethal against Mach 2.0 fighter aircraft and devastating beyond belief against buildings, vehicles, and humans. The two men inside didn't come out to engage in the usual small talk or to bum some cigarettes from the guards or even to rob them. The Libyan guards, after all, were not armed.
Suddenly the SSC militiaman behind the steering wheel fired up his engine and headed west, the vehicle crunching the gravel with the weight of its tires.
Later, following the attack, according to the (unclassified) Accountability Review Board report, an SSC official said that “he ordered the removal of the car ‘to prevent civilian casualties.’ ” This hints that the SSC knew an attack was imminent; that it did not warn the security assets in the Special Mission Compound implies that it and elements of the new Libyan government were complicit in the events that transpired.
It was 2142 hours.
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