Benghazi consulate that came under attack by Al Qaeda militants was being used for CIA operations

Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in a six-hour, commando-style attack on the US Mission on September 11
CIA Director David Petraeus did not attend the ceremony when the coffins arrived back in US to conceal the CIA operation in eastern Libya
Al Qaeda in North Africa and Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia were implicated
Timeline of CIA involvement blows open the dramatic sequence of events, revealing that of 30 American officials there, 23 were with the CIA
CIA team had been operating out of a building known as ‘the annex’, less than half a mile away from the consulate in central Benghazi
Timeline reveals heroic rescue effort by CIA team and the terrifying firefight they encountered

The CIA was operating a covert mission in the U.S. consulate in Libya when it came under attack by al Qaeda-linked militants on September 11, intelligent chiefs have admitted.

Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the six-hour, commando-style attack on the US Mission in the Libyan city, for which al-Qaeda and Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia have been blamed.

The CIA made the revelation as it laid bare the heroic rescue by a handful of its agents in which they fought off wave after wave of mortar and rocket attacks with just their handguns as they sought to infiltrate the compound and shepherd its American staff to safety.

A timeline, released by the agency, has blown open the dramatic sequence of events, revealing for the first time that of the 30 American officials evacuated from the country following the deadly attack, just seven worked for the State Department.

Burning issue: Mr Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a six-hour, commando-style attack on the US Mission in Benghazi on September 11, for which Al Qaeda in North Africa and Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia were implicated

The rest were part of a crack team of intelligence and security experts on a secret mission aimed at counterterrorism and securing heavy weapons held by the embattled regime.

They had been operating out of a building known as ‘the annex’, around a mile away from the consulate in central Benghazi.

Intelligence officials told how when the annex received a call about the assault, about a half dozen members of a CIA security team tried to get heavy weapons and other assistance from the Libyans.

But with time running out, the team went ahead with the rescue attempt armed only with their standard-issue small arms.

Killed: Ambassador Christopher Stevens (left) died of smoke inhalation, while agent Sean Smith (right) died in a desperate battle with insurgents

Heroic: Former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty (left) and Tyrone Woods (right) were killed in a mortar attack

A fierce firefight ensued and the team managed to get into the consulate and shepherd its occupants back to the annex under constant attack from machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

‘The security officers in particular were genuine heroes,’ an official said. ‘They quickly tried to rally additional local support and heavier weapons, and when that could not be accomplished within minutes, they still moved in and put their own lives on the line to save their comrades.

‘At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could.’

The CIA revelations come after Barack Obama’s administration came under sharp attack over its handling of the incident amid claims Washington told officers on the ground to ‘stand down’ before the rescue took place.

Heroic: CIA agents engaged in a fierce firefight with heavily-armed insurgents at the consulate before shepherding its occupants to safety under constant attack from machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades

‘There was no second-guessing those decisions being made on the ground, by people at every U.S. organization that could play a role in assisting those in danger,’ the official added. ‘There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.’

In the first days after the attack, various administration officials linked the Benghazi incident to the simultaneous protests around the Muslim world over an American-made film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Only later did they publicly attribute it to militants, possibly linked to al-Qaeda, and acknowledged it was distinct from the film protests.

The changing explanations have led to suspicions that the administration didn’t want to acknowledge a terror attack on U.S. personnel so close to the Nov. 6 election, a charge Obama has strongly denied.

Inferno: Armed attackers dumped cans of diesel fuel and set ablaze the consulate’s exterior

Siege: The compound came under heavy mortar and gunfire during the attack, which lasted several hours

According to the timeline, around 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time, officials at the CIA’s relatively fortified and well-defended base in Benghazi got a call from State Department officials at the U.S. diplomatic mission about a mile away that the less-fortified public mission complex had come under attack from a group of militants.

Other official sources said that the initial wave of attacks on the diplomatic mission involved setting fires using diesel fuel.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS: HOW THE RESCUE OPERATION UNFOLDED

9.40pm – CIA officials in ‘The Annex’ get a distress call from the consulate saying they are under attack.

10.05pm – Armed only with handguns, team of about six CIA security officers leave their base for the public diplomatic mission compound.

10.30pm – With bullets whistling overhead, the CIA team move into the compound after unsuccessfully trying to get heavy weapons and help from local Libyan allies.

11.10pm – A Defense Department drone, which had been on an unrelated mission some distance away, arrived in Benghazi to help officials on the ground gather information.

11.30pm – U.S. personnel who had been working or staying at the mission all accounted for, except for Ambassador Stevens.

11.40pm – Driving back to the secure base, the evacuees come under further fire.

12am – The installation itself comes under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

12am – A CIA security team based in Tripoli, which included two U.S. military officers, lands at Benghazi airport and begins plotting how to locate the missing ambassador.

1am – The patchy attacks on the base begin to die down after 90 minutes of fierce fighting.

4am – The reinforcements from Tripoli take a convoy of vehicles to the CIA base to prepare for evacuation.

4.30am – a fresh round of mortar attacks is launched on the base, killing two U.S. security officers.

5.30 – A heavily armed Libyan military unit arrive at the CIA base to help evacuate the compound of U.S. personnel to the Benghazi airport.

From 6am – Roughly 30 Americans, as well as the bodies of Stevens and the other three Americans killed during the attacks, were loaded on planes and flown out of the city, several U.S. officials said.

The dense smoke created by the fuel both made it hard for people at the compound to breathe and to organise a response to the attack.

About 25 minutes after the initial report came into the CIA base, a team of about six agency security officers left their base for the public diplomatic mission compound.

Over the succeeding 25 minutes, the CIA team approached the compound, and tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to get local Libyan allies to bring them a supply of heavier weapons, and eventually moved into the burning diplomatic compound, the intelligence official said.

At around 11:10 p.m., a Defense Department drone, which had been on an unrelated mission some distance away, arrived in Benghazi to help officials on the ground gather information.

By 11:30, U.S. personnel who had been working or staying at the mission had been rounded up except for Ambassador Stevens, who was missing, the intelligence official said.

When they tried to drive out of the diplomatic compound to return to the CIA base, however, the convoy carrying U.S. evacuees came under fire.

Once they got back to the CIA base, that installation itself came under fire from what the intelligence official described as small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

These patchy attacks went on for roughly 90 minutes, the intelligence official said.

Around the same time, a CIA security team based in Tripoli, which included two U.S. military officers, landed at Benghazi airport. Upon its arrival, however, the team spent some time trying both to arrange local transport and to locate the missing Ambassador Stevens.

After some time trying to solve these problems, the security team that had flown in from Tripoli eventually arranged for an armed local escort and extra transportation, but decided not to go the hospital where they believed Stevens had been taken.

In part this was because they had reason to believe Stevens was likely dead, and because security at the hospital was believed, at best, to be ‘uncertain,’ the intelligence official said.

By Matt Blake

PUBLISHED: 12:11 GMT, 2 November 2012 | UPDATED: 17:16 GMT, 2 November 2012

Find this story at 2 November 2012

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