Written by RLAdmin2
18 Agu 2013 4:13 pm
Terror in the night: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi
by Fred Burton
St. Martin’s Press
It worker Sean Smith was chatting on his computer when it began. “F--k. Gunfire,” he typed.
Terrorists had entered the Benghazi diplomatic compound by simply ordering a $32-a-night unarmed Libyan “guard” to open the front gates. Only mildly less challenging was the next phase: setting fire to the ambassador’s villa to smoke out or kill their prey, Ambassador Christopher Stevens. After lighting the place up, using a depot of diesel fuel whose exact whereabouts they seem to have known in advance, the “tangos” (jargon for terrorists) jovially congregated outside the building, firing their AK-47s in the air and waiting. As they congratulated each other on the murders they were about to carry out, Diplomatic Security Service agents called Washington to tell them what was happening.
A compelling, mostly convincing account of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks has arrived in “Under Fire,” by former State Department counterterrorism deputy chief Fred Burton and author and terrorism expert Samuel M. Katz.
In the months before Sept. 11, Benghazi had become a serpents’ nest. Men in dark glasses and briefcases full of cash and 9 mm semiautomatics walked the city negotiating assassinations. The situation had become too hairy even for Iran, a notable sponsor of terrorism that pulled out of town after seven Iranian Red Crescent aid workers were kidnapped.
Yet the US Special Mission Compound was poorly defended, minus the anti-terror safeguards that had become standard equipment for US posts across the Arab world after the Beirut attack that killed 241 American servicemen in 1983. The better-defended CIA annex a mile away in Benghazi, the location of the final act of the onslaught that began at the consulate, was twice attacked by bombers that summer. A state of “maximum alert” was declared for the city on Aug. 29.
On Sept. 8, an amateurish anti-Islam video called “Innocence of Muslims,” which had been on YouTube since July, began getting picked up by Arab television. Many Muslim nations censored the video, but a religious-themed show in Egypt gave it a burst of publicity by showing clips on the air. Protesters gathered outside the US embassy in Cairo the day of Sept. 11 as cops looked the other way.
Some protesters managed to scale the walls and enter the compound. They sprayed graffiti, tore down the US flag at the entrance and replaced it with the black flag of jihad. A hastily assembled defense force in riot gear quashed the demonstration, which was actually orchestrated by opportunist fanatics demanding the release of 9/11 mastermind Omar Abdel-Rahman from US custody.
In Benghazi that day, a man dressed as police officer stood outside the front gate taking pictures with a phone. Smith, a 34-year-old Air Force vet in charge of computer systems for the outpost, ended one online message with the words, “Assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”
Shortly after 3 p.m. Washington time, at 9:40 in the evening, a gunman knocked on the guard booth with the butt of AK-47. “Open the gate, you f---er,” he said in Arabic.
When the guard did so, dozens of al Qaeda terrorists swarmed the compound, some of them in pickups fitted with heavy machine guns and flying the black flag of jihad. There was no protest, organized or otherwise, about the anti-Islam video, and no one at the compound said otherwise.
Apart from the unarmed $4-an-hour human speed bump at the front gate, and the handful of ragtag Libyan mercenaries who served as a mini-militia inside the gates, Stevens’ only real protective force was the five American DS agents — hot-zone bodyguards and “modern-day Crocketts, Bowies and Travises at an Alamo outpost very far from home,” Burton and Katz write.
At the small command post called the TOC, for Tactical Operations Center, the DS agent in charge, identified by the authors only as R, hit the alarm as he watched many of the hired Libyan security men run away. He immediately called the local CIA Annex and the US embassy in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, to tell them, “Benghazi under fire, terrorist attack.”
The air filled with the smell of cordite as more and more terrorists stormed the compound. “Combat was like a pickup game in the Arab world,” one DS agent with Mideast experience told the authors. “When the gunfire begins, terrorists and their supporters start sending text messages, and Facebook notifications follow. Soon it becomes a beach party, sans the beach and the party.”
One of the agents, identified as A, found Stevens and Smith in the ambassador’s residence, got them in body armor and took them to the villa’s panic room to hide behind a steel door. “Package and one guest secure,” agent A radioed to agent R.
In the TOC, R watched on monitors as the terrorists conducted a textbook attack using sophisticated tactics and silent hand signals indicating expert training, though they were dressed in a variety of clothes including Inter Milan soccer jerseys. The attackers evidently had superb intelligence about the interior of the compound and even knew about a group of new generators that weren’t yet installed, next to which stood a convenient supply of half a dozen large jerry cans filled with gasoline. The men lugged the 40-pound cans to the ambassador’s residence as A aimed his rifle at them from inside the panic room. He decided not to fire in order not to give away his position. From the TOC, R kept telling him that backup was on the way.
The tangos tore into the residence, trashed it, set fire to it. Stevens, Smith and A were trapped in a smoky bathroom in total darkness. As they creeped out, A lost track of Smith and Stevens behind him. Both would die in the fire as A managed to get out a window and up to the roof.
Soon Tyrone Woods, the former SEAL stationed at the CIA annex a mile away, rolled up with six other men in a pair of Mercedes G Wagons to rescue the survivors. They exfiltrated their countrymen, including the corpse of Smith, after a prolonged gunfight of more than 15 minutes that was an amazing feat of tactical mastery and sheer guts. Roughly a dozen efforts to find Stevens failed (his body would be dragged out of his house by looters early the next morning). “We have to get the f--k out of here,” a team leader of the rescue group told R as dozens more terrorists rushed in to join the battle.
The battleground then followed to the barely disguised CIA post — “the worst-kept secret in the city of Benghazi” — where the tangos eventually set up mortars after 5 o’clock the next morning. The fourth mortar round landed almost on Woods, and the fifth hit Doherty. Both died instantly. Only as the sun came up, and reinforcements arrived on trucks after flying in from Tripoli, 400 miles away, did the tangos scatter. Thirty-two survivors packed up, carefully laying the three corpses in the back of an SUV, and fled. Stevens’ remains would later be collected by CIA figures from the Benghazi hospital, where Libyans had taken them during the looting of the diplomatic compound.
As for the politics of Benghazi, the book has little to say about what was happening in DC during the attack. Hillary Clinton is barely mentioned until the epilogue. Which is telling.
At no point is Clinton depicted responding to the attack in any way, except when the authors declare that, after meeting with her deputy and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, “the decision was made not to launch a Foreign Emergency Support Team, or FEST, from Andrews Air Force Base,” which is an irrelevant detail given the distance from Libya. Somehow, that decision in favor of inaction was anyway made not by Clinton but by Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy (not related to the famous Kennedy family), according to the authors.
Where was the cavalry during that long night of violence? The CIA had two units, the Special Activities Division and the Special Operations Group, that were staffed by Rambos and James Bonds. They were mission-built for a situation like this one. Neither of them was scrambled: “an assessment must have been made,” the authors write uncertainly, that the CIA Annex were “more than capable of neutralizing any outside threat ‘in house.’ ” The question of who decided not to call on these teams is an important one.
What about the Marine Corps’ rapid-response unit, the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, a “globally on-call force”? The nearest one was in Spain, hours away. The sword of honor couldn’t cut through red tape, apparently: “Logistic challenges such as airspace and overflight clearances are not easily sorted out, especially involving a nation like Libya,” write Burton and Katz. “Lean forward and get there as fast as you can,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly told these troops.
Yet who made the decision to wait for permission instead of sending in the FAST? There is, obviously, no time to get permission slips signed when men are under fire. We didn’t notify Pakistan when we sent in the team to get bin Laden.
“There was never a question concerning US resolve or the overall capabilities of the US military to respond to Benghazi,” the authors conclude, unsatisfyingly. “There was, however, nothing immediate about an immediate response.”
With a similarly apologetic tone, they conclude that Washington’s slow response was equally inevitable. Though the State Department’s Special Operations Center was equipped with video monitors to study Benghazi to observe the attack as it occurred, “it took quite a bit of effort and time to get cabinet-level officials into these same rooms for a single secure videoconference.”
Maybe it did, but it shouldn’t have. “Government agencies and bureaucracies,” they write, “are not made for speed.”
Actually, that is exactly what quick-response military units and situation rooms are made for. That shrug of acceptance is not acceptable. The more we learn about Benghazi, the more we need to know. The story is far from over.