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“The militias in Benghazi controlled what little security environment existed there.”[20]

So said the Principal Officer at the U.S. Temporary Mission Facility in Benghazi during his testimony before a House of Representatives Select Committee. He was, of course, speaking of the post-Gadhafi Libyan landscape, one that has reacted to the fall of an autocrat with a profusion of militias and fractured forces. The country had become an exceptionally dangerous one in 2012, as two separate governments battled for control of the country. It was in this confusing and perilous security scene that U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens saw potential for Libya’s future, and so he made his fateful decision to visit the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Today, everyone in the United States knows his name, and those of Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty, because on the night of September 11, 2012, all four were killed in a coordinated attack on the U.S. consulate.

In this three-part feature, the Collie will look closely at three distinct aspects of this infamous story: Part one will focus on the prologue to the attack, discussing what Libya was like in 2012, and what Ambassador Stevens was doing in such a dangerous place. Part two will focus exclusively on the events that took place on the night of the attack. It will not stray into speculation or conspiracy as so many others have, but will rather stick to the strict events as they were reported by the people who lived through them. Part three, the aftermath, will answer two primary questions: First, what made this attack so fatal, and second, whether the governmental response in Washington has been appropriate.

The trouble with writing a story like this one with accuracy and factuality is that, as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed, many of the facts of that night still remain mired in the fog of war. Details that are central to the plot remain redacted, and multiple but conflicting accounts are still not reconciled. It is easy to fill in these blanks with fantastic tales or intriguing suggestions, but we have to the best of our ability rid this story of any such speculation.

In 2011, outside of the city of Sirte, the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gadhafi, along with 200 of his most loyal followers, were intercepted. French aircrafts under the command of NATO and supporting the Libyan rebellion struck Gadhafi’s vehicle convoy multiple times, forcing them to disband. With their transport destroyed and their lives imperiled, Gadhafi and his remaining supporters took shelter in large, open drains. They held out there for a while, but it was ultimately to no avail. When the rebels got their hands on the deposed autocrat, they were not merciful.[21]

Four years after his death, Libya had descended further into chaos. A democratic election in 2014 resulted only in fragmentation, after a militant coalition known as Libya Dawn rejected the results of the election and seized control of the capital city, Tripoli.[22] Concurrently, the internationally recognized government centered itself in Eastern Libya at the city of Tobruk.

In 2012, however, the situation was even more confusing. Former revolutionaries formed some militias, while former Gadhafi loyalists joined others. Some groups were pro-democracy and took up arms to promote an election that could determine the future of Libya. Other groups were Islamist, but even within these Islamist militias differences abounded. Some were relatively peaceful and friendly to the United States. Others were anti-democratic, supporting instead an Islamist government in Libya, though they were still relatively peaceable. Others still were more hardline, more willing to be violent, while some were jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

It was certainly these political and military divisions that made Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution and a contested city in Eastern Libya, such a dangerous place. But notwithstanding all of the confused politics, or perhaps because of them, Ambassador Stevens visited the city in 2012. His arrival was not scheduled in ignorance of security problems or the possibility of a dangerous attack, and yet he went anyway.

Ambassador Stevens visited Benghazi despite repeated attacks on foreign dignitaries.

credit: The Washington Post

In spite of much uncertainty, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, remained committed to the country. This was part of the reason for his arrival at the Temporary Mission Facility in Benghazi on September 10, 2012. And yet, even at the time of his arrival, the security situation in Benghazi was often referred to as “deteriorating.”[20] In fact, in the months prior to the assault on the Temporary Mission Facility, the number of attacks directed at Western organizations and dignitaries would have been enough to deter most people from going to Benghazi at all.

In March of 2012, members of a local militia searching for a suspect fired their weapons very close to the mission facility, at which point they also attempted to enter the mission grounds. This strange event was followed by the more foreboding attacks that took place in April: First, an unknown person threw an IED over the mission facility’s wall. A few days later, another IED was thrown at a convoy carrying the head of the UN Mission in Libya.

In May, the International Committee of the Red Cross Building in Benghazi was attacked with RPG fire. An organization called the Omar Abdurrahman group (named after the Blind Sheikh, a man incarcerated in the U.S. for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing) took credit for the attack. One month later, the ICRC building in Misrata, a nearby city, suffered the same type of attack.

June proved to be a particularly dangerous month in Benghazi. Another IED was thrown at the Temporary Mission Facility, and this time it detonated, leaving a nine by twelve foot hole in the facility wall. On June 11th, there was a coordinated attack on a diplomat: assailants armed with RPGs and small arms attacked the convoy carrying the British Ambassador in Benghazi. In response to this attack, the UK closed its mission in the city the following day.

In July, Iranian ICRC workers were abducted and another IED was found at the Tibesti Hotel, a location that was known for hosting foreign diplomats and businessmen, including Ambassador Stevens. In August, the ICRC office in Misrata was attacked, once again with RPGs. This proved to be the final straw for the Red Cross, which, having weathered three such attacks, withdrew its representatives from Misrata and Benghazi.[10]

These events were underscored by a host of other attacks throughout the country, attacks with small arms, RPGs, grenades, and a bar brawl in Tripoli that escalated into a shootout.[10] It’s difficult to extract any meaningful pattern from the full list of incidents that led up to the attack on the consulate. The majority of these events were perpetrated by unknown assailants. The attacks on the ICRC compounds provide the clearest pattern of behavior, seeing as one group took credit for one attack, and all attacks were committed with the heavy use of RPGs. But we do not know the individuals who threw IEDs at the consulate, or those who attacked the British ambassador, or those who placed an IED at the Tibesti hotel. We cannot know if these acts were the effort of one individual or one group, or if they were isolated incidents. Couple this uncertainty with the obscuring effects of routine local militia activity, and in short, what results is a very confusing security scene.

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence compiled a list that includes all of the above events. But it’s important to note that these attacks are not only viewed together in retrospect. In testimony given before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, one of the Diplomatic Security Agents stationed at the TMF recalled that important intelligence officials in Benghazi knew about these attacks and considered them “anomalies.”[20] This agent also stated that, rather than characterizing these attacks as concerted efforts to target American and other foreign envoys, the incidents were instead seen as “local population against local population.”[20] That is, they were seen as symptomatic of ongoing civil unrest, and not as premeditated attacks against diplomats.

Ambassador Stevens was not so certain. In his diary, which chronicled many of his thoughts in the months preceding the attack, he wrote: “Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate, British embassy, and our own people.”[23]

Libya’s political and military power lay in the hands of many independent militias.

According to the House Special Committee on Benghazi, Ambassador Stevens’ reason for visiting the Temporary Mission Facility was twofold: For one, the U.S. respected Benghazi’s status as the “cradle of the revolution” against Gadhafi, and as such the “US believed it needed to maintain a mission there to keep up with local politics and key members of the revolution it had supported.”[18] The idea, therefore, was that a U.S. mission in Benghazi would strengthen relations with “a nascent group of commanders”[20] who had the potential to become major political figures in Eastern Libya. In order to jumpstart relations with such leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit Benghazi and present the consulate as a gift to anchor a good diplomatic relationship with the new face of Libyan governance.

The trouble, it seems, was figuring out exactly who was in control. Benghazi is located in Eastern Libya, in a portion of the country called Cyrenaica. The Libyan government that was elected following the fall of Gadhafi had “only tenuous control over the eastern region”[14] and was engaged in a power struggle with several different local militias. The BBC reports that there are currently over 2,000 separate militias in Libya today, and collectively these militias control Libya, more so than the official government.


As you can see in the above map, the political landscape in Libya is fragmented. The internationally recognized government, formally in control of much of Eastern Libya, truthfully has very little power. In Benghazi especially, influential militias are numerous: In 2016, four years after the attack, Benghazi is largely controlled by the militia groups that patrol its streets: Libya Dawn, Libyan Shield, the 17 February Militia, Ansar al-Sharia, jihadi groups, and more recently, the Islamic State.

At the time of the attack, the United States considered several local militias to be friendly, and even relied on them to provide additional security at American diplomatic locations. Libya Shield, for example, assisted in evacuating U.S. personnel after the attack on the consulate. Similarly, the 17 February Militia was stationed in a barracks on the Temporary Mission Facility to provide security to the consulate. And yet, U.S. officials were not without doubts. An Emergency Action Committee convened in Benghazi on August 15 expressed concerns about some of the members of friendly local militias.

Considering that the U.S. and NATO supported the pro-democracy rebellion against the Gadhafi regime, the 17 February Brigade was a strange choice for consulate security, given that it is an Islamist-leaning group, and its leader, Fawzi Bukatef, has his own Islamist ties.[5] Bukatef defended one of the groups accused of perpetrating the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, or more specifically, Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi. In response to allegations that Ansar al-Sharia was involved in the attack, Bukatef denied that the organization had anything to do with it, and he furthermore denied that they had any ties to al-Qaeda or any international militants.[5]

Ansar al-Sharia itself is something of an arcane organization. In the years prior to the 2012 attack, groups by that same name began to appear in many different locations across the Middle East and North Africa. The name itself translates roughly to “Supporters of Islamic law” and has come to serve as an umbrella name for any organization that supports the establishment of an Islamist government.[15] Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi therefore sounds like it’s affiliated with groups in Egypt and Yemen, but the connection may in fact only be nominal. And prior to the attack on the consulate, there wasn’t really any reason to believe that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi was a violent organization: in fact, its members have “cleaned and fixed roads, provided aid during Ramadan, and at the time of the attack were helping with security at a hospital in Benghazi.”[15][5]

And yet, it is difficult to deny that members of Ansar al-Sharia were involved in the attack, when “witnesses at the scene of the assault on the mission said they saw pickup trucks labeled with the group’s logo, which is well known in Benghazi. Fighters attacking the embassy acknowledged that they belonged to Ansar al-Shariah.”[5] The group’s commander Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi disapproved of the attack on the consulate and denied his group’s involvement in the assault, though he added a foreboding caveat: “If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it.”[5]

So some Islamist militias were called upon to aid U.S. personnel in Benghazi, while others were blamed for the attack on the consulate. Indeed, it seems hardly possible to discern friend from foe in such conditions. That being said, it was exactly the necessity to discriminate between friend and enemy that was so vital to the success of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Eastern Libya. The Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi summarized the usefulness of meeting with local militias in his testimony before the Select Committee on Benghazi:

“Some of the working assumptions were that they were doing this mainly for personal profit; others for religious and ideological reasons. It is trying to understand motivations of groups of people who may or may not become future leaders for the city of Benghazi or the country of Libya… It was really difficult to determine who was in charge, and I think they right there in front of us were, you know, playing that out, which is a great opportunity to really get a sense of what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

The militant factionalism of Benghazi, which would prove to be the foremost weakness of the city, was also its primary draw. Ambassador Stevens believed that the leaders of many of these militias would define the future of Eastern Libya, and if the U.S. wanted a stake in that future, they would need to figure out who they could count as an ally. To this end, the CIA (which had more than two dozen personnel operating inside Benghazi[12]) was running surveillance on many of the major militias in the city, looking for any ties to weapons trafficking, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).[12] This vital information would be discovered, unfortunately, only after it was too late.

Ambassador Stevens was aware of security flaws at the Temporary Mission Facility.


In the months prior to the attack on the consulate, Ambassador Stevens worked to create more reliable security apparatuses in Benghazi and in Tripoli. On June 6, 2012, he recommended the creation of teams, “made up of locally hired personnel”[10] in the cities of Benghazi and Tripoli. Following this action (which was unsuccessful because the State Department was unable to “find and clear appropriate personnel”[10]), Stevens also requested “a minimum of 13 ‘Temporary Duty’ (TDY) U.S. security personnel for Libya.”[10] This request was also never fulfilled, and was furthermore never responded to.

After the attack on the British Ambassador’s convoy, the CIA Annex set about upgrading their security, making several changes to their facility that are still redacted from any record for safety reasons. Why similar security upgrades were not installed at the consulate is unknown, but what we do know is that, on August 15, 2012, the Emergency Action Committee in Benghazi reviewed the security at the Temporary Mission Facility and found it woefully lacking:

“The classified version of the ARB report found, the Mission compound ‘included a weak and very extended perimeter, an incomplete interior fence, no mantraps and unhardened entry gates and doors. Benghazi was also severely under-resourced with regard to weapons, ammunition, [non-lethal deterrent] and fire safety equipment, including escape masks.”[10]

Maybe it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s impending visit to the Benghazi consulate that prompted Ambassador Stevens to assess the situation there prior to her arrival. Or maybe he felt his presence in the city was necessary to bolster U.S. diplomatic relations in an emerging political capital–after all, he noted that many people in the city already regarded him as being late to visit. But when he retired to his room at 9:00 p.m. on September 11, he was acutely aware of the dangerous situation he was in. His final journal entry, from the day of the attack, references “never ending security threats.”[23]

Even though the Ambassador worried about his compound’s safety on the night of September 11, the U.S. government’s concern was broader, focused instead on possible attacks against all U.S. facilities due to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a concern that was voiced in “general warning notices” sent to “facilities worldwide.”[10] But at no point before the attack in Benghazi were there any real warning signs. At this time, it’s clear to us that the attack was preplanned, but it’s also likely that the attackers didn’t need much time to formulate it. Looking at the nature of the attack itself, “in tactical terms” it “wasn’t that complicated—a bunch of guys with easy access to light weapons hit a poorly guarded American target.”[18]

It seems that on the morning of September 11, 2012, a group of attackers cobbled together from AQIM, AQAP, Ansar al-Sharia and perhaps others (It is important to note that “the fact that AQIM and AQAP members joined in the attack doesn’t mean the organizations themselves planned them”[18]) orchestrated a deadly attack on an easy target. None of the U.S. intelligence networks on the ground in Benghazi had any way of knowing what was coming.

Read Part II of this feature here.


 Works Cited

(Note: This list includes works consulted for all three parts of the series.)

[1] McLean, Alan, Sergio Peçanha, Archie Tse, and Lisa Waananen. “Attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya.” New York Times, October 1, 2012.

[2] Margasak, Larry. “Timeline of events, comments surrounding Benghazi.” AP Octover 19, 2012.

[3] Steven Lee Myers, “Clinton Suggests Link to Qaeda Offshoot in Deadly Libya Attack.” The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2012.

[4] Hosenball, Mark. “White House told of militant claim two hours after Libya attack: emails.” Reuters, Oct. 23, 2012.

[5] Kirkpatrick, David D., Suliman Ali Zway, and Kareem Fahim. “Attack by Fringe Group Highlights the Problem of Libya’s Militias.” The New York Times, September 15, 2012.

[6] Kirkpatrick, David D. “Libya Singles Out Islamist as a Commander in Consulate Attack, Libyans Say.” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2012.

[7] Kessler, Glenn. “Is Hillary Clinton a ‘liar’ on Benghazi?” The Washington Post, October 30, 2015.

[8] “US envoy dies in Benghazi consulate attack.” 12 Sept. 2012.

[9] Sotloff, Steven. “Death and the American Ambassador: What Happened in Benghazi.” Time. Sept. 12, 2012.

[10] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Review of the Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012.” January 15, 2014.

[11] HPSCI January 14 Update on Benghazi.

[12] Schmitt, Eric, Helene Cooper, and Michael S. Schmidt. “Deadly Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts.” The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2012.

[13] “Flashback: What Susan Rice Said About Benghazi.” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2012.

[14] “Guide to key Libyan militias.” BBC, Jan. 11, 2016.

[15] Zelin, Aaron. “Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.” Foreign Policy, Sept. 21, 2012.

[16] Wemple, Erik. “CNN vs. the State Department: A long story.” The Washington Post, September 23, 2012.

[17] Ackerman, Spencer. “What Happened in Benghazi was a Battle.” Wired, Sept. 12, 2012.

[18] Allen, Jonathan. “The best reason to shut down the Benghazi committee.” Vox, Oct. 22, 2015.

[19] Boghani, Priyanka. “Regrets of a Revolution? Libya After Qaddafi.” PBS, Sept. 29, 2015.

[20] “Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi.”

[21] “Muammar Gaddafi: How he died.”, 31 October 2011.

[22] Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner, “Four Years After Gaddafi, Libya is a Failed State.” Foreign Policy in Focus, April 6, 2015.

[23] Harris, Shane. “Chris Stevens’ Benghazi Diary Reveals His Brooding, Hopeful Final Days.” June 26, 2013.


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