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.
By Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz
THE INFERNO The U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, in flames, on September 11, 2012. The attackers seemed to have detailed knowledge of the mission’s layout and even to know there were jerry cans full of gasoline near the compound’s western wall, which they would use to fuel the fire.
Adapted from Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi, by Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz, to be published in September by St. Martin’s Press; © 2013 by the authors.
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
he 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.
The attack was announced with a rifle-butt knock on the guard-booth glass.
“Iftah el bawwaba, ya sharmout,” the gunman ordered, with his AK-47 pointed straight at the forehead of the Libyan guard at Charlie-1. “Open the gate, you fucker!” The guard, working a thankless job that was clearly not worth losing his life over, acquiesced. Once the gate was unhinged from its locking mechanism, armed men appeared out of nowhere. The silence of the night was shattered by the thumping cadence of shoes and leather sandals and the clanking sound of slung AK-47s and RPG-7s banging against the men’s backs.
Once inside, they raced across the compound to open Bravo-1, the northeastern gate, to enable others to stream in. When Bravo-1 was open, four vehicles screeched in front of the Special Mission Compound and unloaded over a dozen fighters. Some of the vehicles were Mitsubishi Pajeros—fast, rugged, and ever so reliable, even when shot at. They were a warlord’s dream mode of transportation, the favorite of Benghazi’s criminal underworld and militia commanders. The Pajeros that pulled up to the target were completely anonymous—there were no license plates or any other identifying emblems adorning them, and they were nearly invisible in the darkness, especially when the attackers disabled the light in front of Bravo-1.
Other vehicles were Toyota and Nissan pickups, each armed with single- and even quad-barreled 12.7-mm. and 14.5-mm. heavy machine guns. They took up strategic firing positions on the east and west portions of the road to fend off any unwelcome interference.
Each vehicle reportedly flew the black flag of the jihad.
Some of the attackers removed mobile phones from their pockets and ammunition pouches and began to videotape and photograph the choreography of the assault. One of the leaders, motioning his men forward with his AK-47, stopped to chide his fighters. “We have no time for that now,” he ordered, careful not to speak in anything louder than a coarse whisper. “There’ll be time for that later.” (Editor’s note: Dialogue and radio transmissions were re-created by the authors based on their understanding of events.)
Information Management Officer (IMO) Sean Smith was in his room at the residence, interfacing with members of his gaming community, when Charlie-1 was breached. The married father of two children, Smith was the man who had been selected to assist Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi with communications. An always smiling 34-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran and computer buff, he was ideally suited for the sensitive task of communicator. Earlier in the day, Smith had ended a message to the director of his online-gaming guild with the words “Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.” He was online when the enemy was at the gate, chatting with his guild-mates. Then suddenly he typed “Fuck” and “Gunfire.” The connection ended abruptly.
One of the gunmen had removed his AK-47 assault rifle from his shoulder and raised the weapon into the air to fire a round. Another had tossed a grenade. The Special Mission Compound was officially under attack.
R. sounded the duck-and-cover alarm the moment he realized, by looking at the camera monitors, that the post had been compromised by hostile forces. Just to reinforce the severity of the situation, he yelled “Attack, attack, attack!” into the P.A. system. From his command post, R. had an almost complete view of the compound thanks to a bank of surveillance cameras discreetly placed throughout, and the panorama these painted for him is what in the business they call an “oh shit” moment. He could see men swarming inside the main gate, and he noticed the Libyan guards and some of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade (a local Benghazi militia hired to protect the mission) running away as fast as they could. R. immediately alerted the embassy in Tripoli and the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) housed in the Annex, a covert C.I.A. outpost about a mile from the mission. The QRF was supposed to respond to any worst-case scenarios in Benghazi with at least three armed members. R.’s message was short and to the point: “Benghazi under fire, terrorist attack.”
Night of Terror
. was the agent on duty that night who, according to the Special Mission Compound’s emergency protocols, would be responsible for safeguarding Stevens and Smith in case of an attack. A. rushed into the residence to relieve, or “push,” D., who ran back to the barracks to retrieve his tactical kit, through the access point in the alleyway connecting the two compounds. D. was wearing a white T-shirt and his underwear when the alarm sounded. The terrorists had achieved absolute surprise.
The DS agents ran like sprinters toward their stowed weapons and equipment. Their hearts rushed up their chests, to the back of their throats; their mouths dried up in the surge of adrenaline. The agents attempted to draw on their training and keep their minds focused and fluid as they hoped to avoid an encounter when outnumbered and outgunned. The sounds of guttural Arabic voices, which sounded like angry mumbling to the Americans, grew, and the odd vicious shot was fired into the September sky. The bitter smell of cordite, like a stagnant cloud left behind following a Fourth of July fireworks display, hung in the air. Numerous figures, their silhouettes barely discernible in the shadows, chased the agents from behind, chanting unintelligibly and angrily.
The agents got ready to engage, but hoped that they wouldn’t have to yet. It was too early in the furious chaos to make a last stand. Each agent asked himself the basic questions: How many gunmen were inside the perimeter? What weapons did they have?
But one thing was absolutely certain in the minds of each and every one of the agents in those early and crucially decisive moments: that the U.S. ambassador, the personal representative of President Barack Obama, was the ultimate target of the attack. They knew that they had to secure him and get him out of the kill zone.
A. ran up the landing to round up Ambassador Stevens and Smith and to rush them to the safe haven inside the residence. “Follow me, sir,” A. said in a calming though urgent tone. “We are under attack.”
There was no time to get dressed or to grab personal items, such as a wallet or cell phone; there was no time to power down laptops or even to take them. A. insisted, however, that both Stevens and Smith don the khaki Kevlar body-armor vests that had been pre-positioned in their rooms. It was critical that the three men make it to the safe haven and lock the doors before the attackers knew where they were. A., following the room-clearing tactics he had been taught in his training, carefully turned each corner, his assault rifle poised to engage any threat. He also had a shotgun slung over his shoulder just in case; the shotgun is a no-nonsense tool of ballistic reliability that was an ideal weapon to engage overwhelming crowds of attackers. A.’s service-issue SIG Sauer handgun was holstered on his hip.
A. heard voices shouting outside the walls; these were interrupted only by the sporadic volleys of automatic gunfire. The lights in the residence were extinguished. The gunfire alerted both Stevens and Smith to the immediacy of the emergency, but negotiating the dark path to the safe haven was made more difficult by the restrictive hug of the heavy vests. Every few feet A. would make sure that the two were following close behind him.
When the three reached the safe haven, the mesh steel door was shut behind them and locked. A. took aim with his rifle through the wrought-iron grate over the window. The door, as well as the window, was supposed to be opened only when the cavalry arrived. When that would happen was anyone’s guess.
Ambassador Stevens requested A.’s BlackBerry to make calls to nearby consulates and to the embassy in Tripoli. He spoke in hushed tones so as not to compromise their position to anyone outside. His first call was to his deputy chief of mission, Gregory Hicks, who was in Tripoli at the U.S. Embassy. Soon after, Hicks discovered a missed call on his phone from an unfamiliar number. He returned the call and reached Stevens, who told him of the attack.
Stevens also called local militia and public-security commanders in Benghazi, pleading for help. He had developed a close and affectionate rapport with many of the most powerful men in the city—both the legitimate and the ruthless. For an unknown reason, Stevens didn’t call the Libya Shield Force, a group of relatively moderate fighting brigades that was, perhaps, the closest armed force in the country to a conventional military organization. The Shield of Libya did have an Islamist-leaning ideology, but it wasn’t jihadist. It answered to the Libyan Defense Ministry, and was under the command of Wisam bin Ahmid; Ahmid led a well-equipped and disciplined force in Benghazi called the Free Libya Martyrs. The Free Libya Martyrs fielded ample assets in the city. Reportedly, Wisam bin Ahmid could have responded, but he was never asked.
Perhaps Stevens feared that members of the militia were participating in the attack.
According to a press account, the Libya Shield Force militia had figured in a cable dispatched to the State Department earlier in the day by the ambassador. In the communication, there was mention of how Muhammad al-Gharabi and Wisam bin Ahmid might not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi, “a critical function they asserted they were currently providing,” because the United States was supporting Mahmoud Jibril, a candidate for the office of prime minister. The cable discussed the city of Derna and linked it to an outfit called the Abu-Salim Brigade, which advocated a harsh version of Islamic law.
The list of whom Ambassador Stevens phoned that night remains protected, but it is believed to have included militia commanders who were quite proud to parade the president of the United States’ personal representative in front of their ragtag armies, but did not feel it wise or worthy to commit these forces for the rescue of a true friend.
C. had initially rushed back to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), but then redirected back to the agents’ quarters to grab his gear and back up D. It was procedure—and tactical prudence—for the remaining agents at the compound to work in teams of two. B. and R. were inside the TOC, locked down behind secured fire doors. The TOC was the security nerve center of the facility. Situated south of the residence, it was a small structure of gray cement with little windows sealed by iron bars. Perhaps the most fortified spot on the compound, it was just barely large enough for two or three individuals, as it was filled with communications, video-surveillance, and other emergency gear.
C. and D. rushed out of the barracks, weapons in hand, hoping to reach the residence on the western side of the compound, but the two young agents found themselves seeking cover. Moving slowly, and peering around corners, the two tried to cross the alleyway that separated the two halves of the Special Mission Compound, but they feared the connecting path would turn into an exposed killing zone. There were just too many gunmen racing about and screaming to one another in Arabic. The DS agents realized that they were cut off, so they made their way back to the barracks. Some of the attackers carried R.P.G.’s slung over their shoulder, and the DS agents knew that they were facing superior firepower. C. radioed the TOC of their predicament and waited for the chance to attempt a breakout.
Bad as the situation was, R., the TOC regional-security officer, had things in hand. Like an air-traffic controller, he knew that the stakes were high and that mistakes could lead to disaster. Ambassador Stevens was hunkered down, and so were the agents. Everyone just needed to hold tight until the cavalry arrived—the C.I.A.’s Global Response Staff and the QRF. The TOC had visual surveillance of the “tangos,” slang for terrorists, and could update the agents.
With pinpoint Military Operations on Urban Terrain tradecraft, the terrorists assaulted the February 17 Martyrs Brigade command post, at the western tip of the northern perimeter, by lobbing a grenade inside and then, before the smoke and debris cleared, firing dedicated bursts of AK-47 fire into the main doorway. A number of February 17 Martyrs Brigade militiamen, along with one or two Libyan guards, were seriously wounded in the exchange, though they still managed to use an escape ladder to climb up to the rooftop, where they hid. The command-post floor was awash in blood.
As they watched the attack on the mission unfold in real time on the video monitors, R. and B. attempted to count the men racing through both the Bravo-1 and Charlie-1 gates. However, the attackers had flowed through the northern part of the grounds so quickly and in such alarming numbers that R. and B. could not ascertain their numbers or armaments. It was only later, by reviewing the attack via the high-resolution DVR system, that the DS discovered there were 35 men systematically attacking the Special Mission Compound.
They were not members of a ragtag force. Split into small groups, which advanced throughout the compound methodically, they employed military-style hand signals to direct their progression toward their objectives. Some were dressed in civil-war chic—camouflage outfits, black balaclavas. Some wore “wifebeater” white undershirts and khaki military trousers. A few wore Inter Milan soccer jerseys—Italian soccer is popular in Libya. Some of those who barked the orders wore mountaintop jihad outfits of the kind worn by Taliban warriors in Afghanistan. Virtually all of the attackers had grown their beards full and long. According to later reports and shadowy figures on the ground in Benghazi—organizers and commanders from nearby and far away—foreigners had mixed in with the local contingent of usual suspects. Many were believed to have come from Derna, on the Mediterranean coast between Benghazi and Tobruk. Derna had been the traditional hub of jihadist Islamic endeavors inside Libya and beyond.
It was clear that whoever the men who assaulted the compound were, they had been given precise orders and impeccable intelligence. They seemed to know when, where, and how to get from the access points to the ambassador’s residence and how to cut off the DS agents as well as the local guard force and the February 17 Martyrs Brigade militiamen on duty that night. As is standard procedure, in the days leading up to the arrival of the ambassador, the regional security officer and his team had made a series of official requests to the Libyan government for additional security support for the mission. It appears that the attackers either intercepted these requests or were tipped off by corrupt Libyan officials. According to one European security official who had worked in Benghazi, “The moment notifications and requests went out to the Libyan Transitional National Council and the militias in advance of Stevens’s arrival, it was basically like broadcasting the ambassador’s itinerary at Friday prayers for all to hear.”
The attackers had seemed to know that there were new, uninstalled generators behind the February 17 Martyrs Brigade command post, nestled between the building and the overhang of foliage from the western wall, as well as half a dozen jerry cans full of gasoline to power them. One of the commanders dispatched several of his men to retrieve the plastic fuel containers and bring them to the main courtyard. A gunman opened one of the cans and began to splash the gasoline on the blood-soaked floor of the February 17 command post. The man with the jerry can took great pains to pour the harsh-smelling fuel into every corner of the building before setting fire to one of the DS notices and igniting an inferno.
In the Line of Fire
. watched from between the metal bars inside the safe haven as a fiery clap was followed by bright-yellow flames that engulfed the command post. He updated the TOC with what he could see and, more ominously, what he could smell.
“A. here. I see flames and smoke.”
“Roger that, me too,” said R., in the TOC.
R. keyed the microphone again and said, “Backup en route.”
And then there was silence.
Silence on the radio means one of two things: either all is good or things are very bad. There are no in-betweens.
Thick plumes of acrid gray and black smoke billowed upward to cloud the clear night sky. The Special Mission Compound was painted in an eerie orange glow. For added fury, some of the gunmen broke the windshields of several of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade vehicles parked near their command post and doused the interior of the vehicles with gasoline. A lit cigarette, smoked almost to the filter, was tossed in to ignite another blaze.
The men carrying the fuel-filled jerry cans moved slowly as they struggled to slice a path to the ambassador’s villa. The 20 liters of fuel contained in each plastic jerry can weighed about 40 pounds, and the gunmen found them difficult to manage, with the fuel sloshing around and spilling on their boots and sandals. The men in charge barked insults and orders to the jerry-can-carrying crews, but intimidation was pointless.
The survival equation at the Special Mission Compound was growing dim. R. summoned C. and D. over the radio:
“Guys, TOC here. Several tangos outside your door. Stay put. Do not move.”
“Copy,” replied one of the agents.
“Backup on the way.”
In the background, the TOC agent could hear the sound of the angry mob in the hallways, over the agent’s keyed microphone. R. communicated his situation to the C.I.A. Annex, the RSO in Tripoli, and the Diplomatic Security Command Center, in Virginia, via his cell phone. Well over a dozen terrorists were trying to break through the cantina at the residence. C. and D. had shut the main door and moved the refrigerator from inside the kitchen and barricaded the door with it. They hunkered down low, with their assault rifles in hand, prepared for the breach and the ballistic showdown. They were trapped. So, too, were R. and B., in the TOC.
A. leaned upward, glancing out through the murky transparency of his window, peering across the bars at the violence before him. He watched as the fuel bearers inched their way forward toward the residence, and he limbered up the fingers of his shooter’s hand as he laid a line of sight onto the targets closing the distance to the villa. He controlled his breathing in preparation to take that first shot. He found himself relying on his instincts, his experience, and, above all, his training. The purpose of the training that DS agents receive—the extensive tactical and evasive-driving skills that are hammered into each and every new member—is to show them how to buy time and space with dynamic skill and pragmatic thought. The DS trains its agents to analyze threats with their minds and gut instincts and not with their trigger fingers.
In that darkened bunker of the villa’s safe haven, A. faced a life-changing or life-ending decision that few of even the most experienced DS agents have ever had to make: play Rambo and shoot it out or remain unseen and buy time? Buying time takes brains—and, according to a DS agent with a plethora of experiences in counterterrorist investigations, “we hire people for their brains.” But A. found himself in the unforgiving position of being damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. As retired DS agent Scot Folensbee reflected, “When you are faced with immediate life-and-death decisions, you know that ultimately, if you survive, you will be second-guessed and criticized. So, the only thing to do is realize that in these cases of ‘Should I shoot or not shoot,’ you as the agent are the one making the decision and you the agent will have to live with that decision. There wasn’t a right decision here, and there wasn’t a wrong one, either.” As A. scanned the horizon, taking aim at which of the attackers he would have to shoot first, he understood that he would either be congratulated or criticized; dead or alive were mere afterthoughts.
The Special Mission Compound in Benghazi on that night was not a textbook case. No classroom, no training officer, and certainly no armchair general could understand the nuances of those terrifying uncertain moments of the attack. The attackers had managed to cut off and isolate two two-man tandems of armed support, and the local militia, paid to stand and fight, had cut and run. A.’s decision was his and his alone. And he chose to do whatever was humanly feasible to keep Stevens and Smith alive. There was no honor in a suicidal last stand before it was absolutely the time to commit suicide. Every second that the three could hang on was another second of hope that rescue would come.
It was 2200 hours.
The attackers moved quickly into the villa. The front door had been locked, and it took some effort to get it open. Finally, an R.P.G. was employed to blow a hole through the door. As they penetrated the villa the attackers were furious and violent, with an animal-like rage. They happily sated their appetite for destruction on anything before them, ripping the sofas and cushions to shreds. Bookshelves, lighting fixtures, vases were bashed and crushed. TVs were thrown to the ground and stomped on; the kitchen was ransacked. The computers left behind, perhaps containing sensitive and possibly even classified information, were simply trashed.
A. raised his weapon at the ceiling, trying to follow the footsteps of the invaders as they stomped on shards of broken glass above. The TOC was providing him with a play-by-play description of the frenetic orgy of destruction. As the gunmen searched the house, determined to retrieve a captive, either a defiant ambassador or the corpse of one, they headed down toward the safe haven.
All that separated A., Stevens, and Smith from the terrorists was the steel-reinforced security gate, of the kind installed inside the apartments of diplomats serving in “normal” locations in order to prevent criminal intrusions. The metal gate wasn’t a State Department-spec forced-entry-and-blast-resistant door, like the ones used in Inman buildings.
A. knew that unless help arrived soon they were, to use a DS euphemism, “screwed.” Screwed was an understatement. The terrorists would use explosives or an R.P.G. to blast their way into the safe haven; they had, he believed, used one to blast through the doors at the main entrance. R.P.G.’s and satchels of Semtex were virtually supermarket staples in Benghazi, and with one pull of the grenade launcher’s trigger or one timed detonation, the armored door to the safe haven would be a smoldering twist of ruin. But fire was a much cheaper and far simpler solution to a frustrating obstacle.
Burning down an embassy or a diplomatic post was so much easier than blowing it up, and historically, when a diplomatic post’s defenses had been breached, the end result was usually an inferno. As the frenzy of destruction began to simmer down, the roar of fire was loud and ominous. R. radioed A. with the news. “Smoke is seen from the villa’s windows, over.” The message was superfluous. The three men could hear the flames engulfing the building, and they could feel the oven-like heat growing hotter and more unbearable as each moment passed. The lights from behind the door began to flicker. The electricity began to falter, and then it died.
Once the fires began and the gunmen discovered the path to the safe haven, A. moved onto his knees to take aim with his assault rifle in case the attackers made it through this final barrier. The attackers flailed their hands wildly in the attempt to pry the gate open. None fired into the room; the mesh steel made it difficult for them to poke the barrels of their AK-47s to a point where they would be able to launch a few rounds. Stevens, Smith, and A. were safely out of view, crouched behind walls. A. cradled his long gun with his left hand, wiping the sweat from his right. He knew he had to be frugal with his shots. He didn’t know if he had enough rounds to stop 10 men, let alone more. As A. moved his sights from target to target, the fiery orange glow behind them made the dozen or so men look like a hundred.
Just before the fire was set, the gunmen had emerged from the villa, relaxed and joyous. They fecklessly fired their AK-47s into the air and watched the villa erupt in a wild blaze. Whoever was inside the doomed building would most certainly die. Their work for the night was nearly done.
The smoke spread fast as A. ordered Stevens and Smith to drop to their knees and led them in a crawl from the bedroom toward the bathroom, which had a small window. Towels were taken off their fancy racks and doused with water. A. rolled them loosely and forced them under the door to keep the smoke from entering the smaller space the three men had retreated to. Nevertheless, the acrid black vapor was eye-searing and blinded the men in the safe haven. The three, crawling around on the bathroom floor, gasped for clean air to fill their lungs. They couldn’t see a thing in the hazy darkness. The men began to vomit into the toilet. Getting some air was now more important than facing the wrath of the attackers.
The situation inside the safe haven was critical. A. attempted to pry open the window, but in seeking ventilation he exacerbated the situation; the opening created an air gust which fed the intensity of the flames and the smoke. The safe haven became a gas chamber. A. yelled and pleaded with Stevens and Smith to follow him to an adjacent room with an egress emergency window, but he couldn’t see the two through the smoke. He banged on the floor as he crawled, hoping they would hear him. A. found himself in the throes of absolute terror. He was, however, unwilling to surrender to the dire environment. He pushed through toward the window, barely able to breathe. With his voice raw from smoke, he mustered whatever energy he had left to yell and propel Stevens and Smith forward.
The egress window was grilled, and within the grille was a section that could be opened for emergency escape. It had a lock with the key located near the window but out of reach from someone outside. It did not open easily. Using all the strength of his arms and shoulders, A. managed to pry the window slightly ajar. He yelled for Stevens and Smith to follow him as he forced his body through the opening. The taste of fresh air pushed him ahead, and he was determined to get his ambassador and his IMO to safety, no matter what.
Coughing up soot, he reached inside to help Stevens and Smith out. There was no response, though; they had not followed him. A. heard the crackling of AK-47 gunfire in the distance, and he heard the whooshing sound of shots flying overhead. Some of the gunmen, who had by now begun to retreat from the blaze, began firing at him. A. didn’t care at this point. Showing enormous courage and dedication, he went back into the safe haven several times to search for both men. The heat and the intensity of the fire and smoke beat him back each time.
Later, A. could not remember the number of attempts he had made to search for Stevens and Smith, but they were numerous. His hands were severely burned, and the smoke inhalation had battered his body to the point where even minor movements caused excruciating pain. Still, he resolved to get the two men out of the inferno, dead or alive. But at approximately his sixth attempt to go back inside, A. found he couldn’t go back anymore. His body, weakened by a lack of oxygen and severe pain, had been humbled by the hellacious reality. Stoically he gathered himself and made toward an emergency ladder near the egress window. He climbed to the roof as the flames rushed upward from the windows that had exploded. While rounds were flying by him, he tried to pull off a metal grate over a skylight on the top of the roof. The building resembled a funeral pyre.
Atop the building, A. struggled his way toward the wedge-shaped sandbag firing emplacement that the DS Mobile Security Deployment operators had affixed the last time they had been to Benghazi. The sandbags shielded A. from the odd shots still ringing out in the night; greenish beams of tracer fire littered the roofline, as the gunmen still hoped to have a chance to engage some of the Americans in a battle to the end. A. used his radio and weapon to smash open the skylight in the hope of ventilating the building. He prayed this would cause the fire to burn itself out, enabling him to rush down into the labyrinth of destruction and save the lives of the ambassador and Sean Smith.
But, as pillars of fire and smoke surged up through the shattered remnants of the skylight, the collapse of the weakened roof seemed imminent. Struggling with every breath he took, he gathered his strength and pressed down on the talk button of his Motorola handset. “I don’t have the ambassador,” he yelled. “Repeat, over?” B. responded. He couldn’t hear what A. had said. As the flames roared around A., he struggled to speak. He found it excruciating to hold the radio in his burned hands. But they had to know. He took a lung-filling gasp of air. “I don’t have the ambassador!”
By Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters/Landov.
Find this story at august 2013
Vanity Fair © Condé Nast Digital