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Benghazi is doomed, much like Iraq and Vietnam, to live in history not as a place but as an act of violence. The complicated diplomatic scene of this North African city has recently been reduced to four American deaths, a terrible tragedy that now defines Libya for many Americans. Unfortunately, as time has gone on, the events that took place on September 11, 2012 have been distorted by claims of wrongdoing both by agents on the ground and by the U.S. administration. Though no evidence has been found to suggest criminality on the part of any U.S. official, the story of Benghazi has come to be associated closely with allegations of cover-ups and corruption.
If Benghazi is to be remembered for the tragedy that occurred there alone, then the common conception of that tragedy should at least be correct, unimpeded by the alterations and exaggerations that twisted the story for entertainment or political gain. The story we have chosen to tell, the one that follows, is in keeping with official government timelines of the attack.
While diplomatic security officers were overwhelmed by the attack, they still worked to repel it.
At 9:00 p.m. on September 11, 2012, the streets of Benghazi were quiet, and there was no indication that the Temporary Mission Facility, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and information management officer Sean Smith were staying, would come under assault. Three Diplomatic Security, or DS, officers were stationed at the Mission’s TOC, Tactical Operations Center. Three local Libyan security officers were additionally stationed in a car on the street just outside the mission’s main gate.
At 9:40 p.m., however, any semblance of a quiet night was destroyed. Dozens of men, in some reports more than 60 in count, each equipped with terrorist paraphernalia, approached the main gate of the Temporary Mission Facility. As they advanced, the three local Libyan security officers left their post, rendering the main gate of the compound unguarded. Reports indicate that gunfire and a blast from an RPG were heard near the main gate at around 9:42 p.m. As it was unguarded and unequipped with typical antipersonnel security equipment, the attackers scaled the gate easily and opened it from the inside, allowing the full group of assailants complete access to the TMF.
As the attack commenced, the DS agents in the TOC activated the Imminent Danger Notification System, which informed both the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and the nearby C.I.A. Annex that the Mission Facility was under attack, and that it needed help. Having called for assistance, they mobilized to combat the attack. A DS agent in the main consulate building assembled Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith and accompanied them to a safe room. At 9:43 p.m., DS agents and members of the local guard force were reported to be running across the compound, no doubt in the face of small arms fire.
At 9:45 p.m., the attackers used diesel fuel to ignite the barracks and headquarters of a local Libyan militia called the 17th February Brigade that was collaborating with DS forces to provide security to the Mission Facility. With the bulk of the security therefore scattered, the assailants were able to move very quickly to the main building, which they also set on fire using the same method. By 9:57 p.m., even the gate’s guardhouse was also on fire. In retrospect, it is relatively clear that the attack was a planned assault on the mission facility. Setting fire to every building wasn’t only opportunistic; it was strategic.
By 10:00 p.m., Smith, Stevens, and the DS agent who was with them were in tremendous danger. The consulate building was unprepared to deal with any type of assault, and fire was no exception. There were no escape masks or fire equipment, which meant that the three men were inhaling a hazardous amount of smoke. Seeing as they were no longer safe in the safe room, the DS agent, nearing unconsciousness himself, broke an emergency escape window and exited the compound. He meant to assist Stevens and Smith out, but he realized in desperation that the two men had not reached the window with him. The DS agent reentered the building several times to try to locate the missing men, but he was not able to.
Unable to find the missing men on his own, he knew he’d have to radio the other agents for assistance. But, as he climbed up to the roof and raised the access ladder behind him, he already knew the truth: “That’s the moment I knew the Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith were probably dead.” Though his hope was lacking, as he radioed for assistance he also broke a skylight on the roof, thinking that it would potentially ventilate the smoky building.
But the other DS officers were in just as much danger as their stranded colleague. Under fire from the assailants, the agents ran to the security quarters, next to the main consulate building, in order to arm themselves with M-4 carbine assault rifles. However, when they tried to return to the consulate building they encountered heavy resistance and were forced to return to the security quarters where they could take cover. This decision left their fellow agent stranded on the roof, knowing that Stevens and Smith were suffocating inside.
At 10:18 p.m., a DS agent detonated a smoke grenade to cover his movement across the compound, evidence that the DS agents were still attempting to find a way back to the main building. At 10:30 p.m., they did. The number of attackers at the TMF seemed to diminish, and in that lull three DS agents moved to the TOC, and from there took an armored car back to the consulate building. They arrived at the main building and reunited with the stranded DS agent, who informed them that Stevens and Smith were still inside. At 10:43 p.m., they went back to the TOC again to grab gas masks, which would prove useless in their ability to search the building because such masks didn’t filter out smoke. Starting at 10:43 p.m., and despite the continued attack from assailants, the DS agents began to enter the building in search of Stevens and Smith. During these searches they were unable to find the ambassador, but they did find Sean Smith, who had unfortunately died from smoke inhalation.
At 10:45 p.m., while DS agents searched the building, a CIA security team from the nearby Annex was spotted on video at the TMF. They had finally answered the call for help, and had arrived to assist.
The CIA was quick to respond to the TMF’s distress call, even though they may have delayed in expectation of reinforcement from local militias.
At 9:42 p.m., the Chief of Base at the CIA Annex in Benghazi received the alarming news that the TMF was under attack, and overwhelmed. At 9:46 p.m., less than ten minutes after the call for assistance, the CIA security team was already preparing weapons and equipment for a rescue operation.
Testimonies given by multiple people at the scene, including the Chief of Base, the Team Leader, and several other security team members are inconclusive about having received an order to “stand down.” One member of the team reported having heard the words “stand down,” but other members of the team contradicted his testimony. However, the team was instructed by the Chief of Base multiple times to wait. According to the Chief of Base and the Team Leader, the situation at the TMF was uncertain and staging a rescue with a small, unreinforced security team could prove fatal. They called multiple local militias and government apparatuses to secure additional armored vehicles for the rescue, but they were unsuccessful. Out of time and out of options, and with the fate of the TMF uncertain, they decided to go without reinforcements. By 10:00 p.m., they had assembled the two armored vehicles they did have, and at 10:03 p.m., twenty minutes after the call for help, the CIA team exited their compound, headed for the TMF.
Making their way to the Mission Facility was more difficult than expected, which seems to have slowed the CIA convoy. Part of this was the confusing militia scene in Benghazi. As the team advanced toward the Mission Facility, they passed armed men and militia headquarters, unable to differentiate between hostile, friendly, and neutral forces. As they neared the TMF, they encountered both enemy fire and friendly militiamen. It took them roughly thirty minutes to arrive at the mission facility, where they joined those members of the 17th February Militia who had chosen to continue their fight against the assailants. Together, the CIA security team and the militia members tried to create a perimeter around the main diplomatic building, which provided enough relief to aid the DS agents still searching for Ambassador Stevens.
For another twenty or thirty minutes, the search for Ambassador Stevens continued, and still there was no sign of him. But outside the main building, small arms fire was steadily increasing. The security team leader, seeing that every surviving American at the TMF was imperiled, decided that it was time to end the search for the Ambassador, who was presumed kidnapped. They needed to get back to the better-secured CIA Annex, so DS agents left in the first vehicle at 11:19 p.m., followed ten minutes later by the CIA security personnel.
Their return to the Annex was, like their arrival at the mission facility, not unchallenged; while returning to the Annex, the vehicles met more enemy resistance, including a roadblock that a UAV stationed above the facility had detected. Despite the clearly planned interception of the CIA convoy, the Annex’s gamble to aid the mission facility paid off. All American personnel (excepting Stevens and Smith) made it to the Annex alive. But their night was far from over. Throughout the early hours of morning, the CIA faced the consequence of their rescue mission: The assailants knew the location of the Annex.
The government’s response to the attack was impeded by a lack of quick response military troops in the region.
It wasn’t until 10:32 p.m. that the NMCC received reports that the Mission Facility in Benghazi had come under assault. From there, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey were notified about the attack. At 11:00 p.m. Benghazi time, Panetta and Dempsey met with the President. Beginning at 12:00 a.m. Benghazi time, Panetta met with senior officials at the Pentagon to discuss possible responses to the attack. After these meetings with high-ranking government officials, by 2:00 a.m. Panetta gave verbal authorization for two military actions: first, that two units of marines, or Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FASTs) should be deployed. Both teams were stationed in Rota, Spain, and they were to deploy respectively to Benghazi and the U.S. embassy in Tripoli to alleviate stress on the security forces there. Second, EUCOM and European special ops teams were to deploy intermediate staging bases in southern Europe.
The most pressing problem for the U.S. government, however, was how to quickly evacuate the Americans still stranded in Benghazi. For this purpose, a six-man security team with two Department of Defense personnel attached departed from Tripoli to the Benghazi airport. The hope was that this team could reach the CIA Annex before any further attacks were carried out against Americans.
At the Temporary Mission Facility, the fighting ceased altogether. All U.S. personnel had evacuated to the Annex, and the battle for the consulate was over. Shortly after the fighting stopped, however, activity on the facility grounds began anew: looting. It was the collective eyes of hundreds of looters, digging through the rubble, that uncovered what the DS agents could not: Ambassador Stevens’ body. The looters who found him took him to the hospital, in vain: at 1:00 a.m., after attempts to revive him, Ambassador Chris Stevens was declared dead of smoke inhalation.
At 1:15 a.m. the reinforcement team from Tripoli landed at the Benghazi airport and began to negotiate travel to the Annex. This was apparently a difficult negotiation, seeing as it took until 4:00 a.m. to reach an agreement, the problem inevitably consisting of sorting out which militias were willing to help. While the reinforcements negotiated passage at the Benghazi airport, Secretary Panetta’s orders were carried out. At 2:53 a.m., the two FAST platoons were ordered to deploy. After three hours of negotiation, the American personnel at the airport, aided at last by the Libyan Shield Militia, set out with an armed escort for the CIA Annex.
One final attack on American personnel caused extreme damage.
At the Annex, the security situation looked grim. Just before two in the morning, multiple suspicious men were seen in the Annex’s immediate area, prompting the security personnel to suspect that the enemy, whoever they were, was assessing the Annex for another attack. From 2:00 to 2:30 a.m., the security team repelled a minor attack, and after that, everything was quiet. Nothing suspicious was reported at the Annex after this attack ended. In the hours that the reinforcements negotiated their way from the airport, security personnel at the Annex experienced a disquieting ceasefire.
At 5:04 a.m., the reinforcement team finally reached the CIA Annex. They made it in time, but only just. Minutes after their arrival, assailants bombarded the Annex with terrible force. Their weapon of choice this time was not diesel fuel, but mortars, and in the period of one minute and nine seconds, five mortars struck the Annex. This proved to be the most lethal attack of the night. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, members of the CIA security team, took to the Annex roof to engage the enemy. They were struck directly by one of the mortars and killed. That same mortar fire also wounded one of the DS agents and another security officer. With two men dead and two injured, it became absolutely necessary to get every American out of Benghazi.
The Libyan Shield Militia unit, the same that had assisted the reinforcement team with getting to the Annex, now helped to evacuate all American personnel to the Benghazi airport. At around this time, AFRICOM ordered a C-17, stationed in Germany, to depart for Tripoli. At 7:40 a.m., having arrived at the Benghazi airport, the first group of American personnel boarded an airplane for Tripoli. At 10:00 a.m., the last of the Americans left Benghazi.
Four Hours after that, the C-17 left Germany, and by 7:17 p.m., it had landed in Tripoli and all of the Americans who were stationed in Benghazi had safely boarded. At 8:56 p.m., the FAST platoon arrived in Tripoli, 18 hours after the order was given, and at 9:28 the intermediate staging bases ordered by Secretary Panetta were finished. At 10:19 p.m., the C-17 carrying the Americans landed in Ramstein, Germany, at last, safe.
After a long and violent Benghazi night, four Americans were dead. And in response to these killings, rather than commending the success of those security forces who did the best they could with the limited resources available to them, many conspiracy theorists and political critics instead attribute the deaths that night to government corruption. Truthfully, this accusation denigrates the actions of security agents, characterizing their best efforts as insufficient, or worse, malicious. But the fact of the matter is that, had it not been for the decisions of DS agents and CIA security personnel, many more Americans could have lost their lives on September 11, 2012.
Interested in the preamble to the attack? Read Part I of this feature here.
(Note: The timeline in this story is compiled from several government reports and news articles.)
 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.http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/press/benghazi.pdf
 U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, “Department of Defense’s Response to the Attack on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and the Findings of its Internal Review Following the Attack.” February 7, 2013. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-113shrg86489/pdf/CHRG-113shrg86489.pdf
 U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “Investigative Report on the Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012.” November 21, 2014. http://intelligence.house.gov/sites/intelligence.house.gov/files/documents/benghazi%20report.pdf
 Hosenball, Mark. “White House told of militant claim two hours after Libya attack: emails.” Reuters, Oct. 23, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-benghazi-emails-idUSBRE89N02C20121024
 Margasak, Larry. “Timeline of events, comments surrounding Benghazi.” AP Octover 19, 2012.http://bigstory.ap.org/article/timeline-events-comments-surrounding-benghazi
 House Select Committee on Benghazi, “Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi.” http://benghazi.house.gov/sites/republicans.benghazi.house.gov/files/2%20Part%20I%20 Redacted%20DR_Redacted2.pdf