Diplomatic Security special agent David Ubben waits silently, his M-4 assault rifle at the ready as he hides deep in the dark inside the villa that serves as the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Ubben’s assignment is close protection for U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, which isn’t always easy. Stevens, a former Peace Corps volunteer, likes to get out among the people in the countries where he serves, especially Libya, which he helped to liberate from Muammar Gaddafi during the war last year. But even he has started to believe that al Qaeda is gunning for him, and on this day, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Stevens has let himself be persuaded to hold all his meetings behind the nine-foot walls and the coils of concertina wire that surround the Benghazi consulate.
That hasn’t been enough. Now groups of armed men swarm through the compound, firing their AK-47s in staccato bursts, and every so often the air shakes with the concussion of a grenade. Behind Ubben, in a specially fortified suite called a safe haven, the ambassador and another diplomat, Sean Smith, should be well protected. There is a large closet, similar to a “panic room,” with supplies of water and food to withstand a siege of hours or even days, and Ubben has radioed the four other American security men holed up in other consulate buildings that he and the ambassador and Smith are OK. This is what the safe haven and the safe room have been built for. And he is there with his M-4 at the ready. He will make sure nobody gets through the steel grilles that protect them.
But now, watching from the dark, Ubben sees some of the attackers coming into the other, open side of the villa. They are carrying jerrycans full of diesel used to fuel the embassy’s electrical generators. They peer through the locked grate of the safe haven. They rattle it. They don’t seem to see him. Ubben watches. He waits. They are spreading diesel over the floor, pouring it onto the overstuffed Arab-style furniture. The fire begins. The flames start to spread. The fumes—the fumes are everywhere. And there is nothing Ubben can do to stop them.
In Washington that morning of Sept. 11, 2012, the air had been crisp and clear and so much like the crisp, clear morning of 11 years before that President Obama mentioned the similarities at a 9/11 memorial service outside the Pentagon. But much else had changed, he said. “Al Qaeda’s leadership has been devastated and Osama bin Laden will never threaten us again,” he told the small audience of employees, their dark glasses glistening in the bright sun. “No single event can ever destroy who we are,” Obama concluded. “No act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for.”
But over the course of the next 24 hours, as the black banner of jihad flew over the United States Embassy in Cairo, and as the American Consulate and the nearby outpost of the CIA in Benghazi came under ferocious attack, all the assumptions on which the administration had founded its counterterrorism policies were called into question. And in the weeks since, the events of that day have come under enormous scrutiny in the close-fought race for the presidency.
The State Department, monitoring the phone calls from the consulate’s operations center, knew virtually from the first minutes, as Ubben, Stevens, and Smith were hiding, that the attack on the consulate was no protest gone astray. And when a major CIA outpost nearby came under attack hours later, there was little doubt about that being an operation by well-trained terrorists. But the administration has sought to reveal as little as possible about the CIA presence and operations in Benghazi, not least because when Obama talks about bringing the killers to justice, those are the people who may be asked to do it.
What follows is a reconstruction of what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, including the first eyewitness account of that critical predawn battle at the secret CIA facility in Benghazi, where two former U.S. Navy SEALs were killed. It is a chronicle of the hunters becoming the hunted in a shadow land of jihadists and revolutionaries, and it shows that even with bin Laden gone, the fight against terrorists is far from over.
By last summer, it had become obvious to U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers that the core al Qaeda organization was trying to take advantage of Gaddafi’s fall and the security vacuum that followed. The connections were many. In 2006 and 2007, one in five of the hundreds of foreign fighters who joined al Qaeda in Iraq came from eastern Libya. And the Americans were tracking the senior leaders wherever they could find them. Their biggest score was Abu Yahya al-Libi, who rose to be No. 2 in al Qaeda’s core organization after bin Laden was killed, but for just a few months. An American drone blew him up in Pakistan in June this year.
In August, the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress pulled together a detailed report that argued al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan was “seeking to build a clandestine network in Libya.” Its operatives were infiltrating the many disparate Salafi Muslim militias, especially a group called Ansar al-Sharia, but they were keeping their profile low. These militias might not follow al Qaeda’s orders, but they sympathized. They took cues. The report also concluded that the increasingly fearsome group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which now controls much of Mali, “will likely join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya.” And then, on Sept. 10, the day before the attack in Benghazi, al Qaeda released a 42-minute video recording by its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he called on followers to avenge the death of al-Libi.
Whatever America’s other problems with Gaddafi in the old days, according to several veteran CIA operatives, the U.S. had come to rely on him for information about al Qaeda’s Libyan connections. After his overthrow, the United States had to put its own people on the ground to track the bad guys.
The CIA will not comment on the number of people based in the four buildings widely referred to now as “the annex” in Benghazi, but from the crowd of Americans taken to the airport to be evacuated early the morning of Sept. 12, it appears there were at least a dozen assigned to the CIA outpost. Today there is every reason to believe none are left. In that sense, whether al Qaeda’s involvement with the attack was inspirational, peripheral, or direct, this was a battle it won.
The events at the consulate that night have been documented in considerable detail by State Department background briefers. There had been massive anti-American protests in Egypt tied to a provocative film reviling the Prophet Muhammad. Men had scaled the walls of the Cairo embassy unopposed, ripped down Old Glory, and raised the black flag of jihad. But as of 8:30 p.m. in Benghazi, when Ambassador Stevens escorted a Turkish diplomat to the gates of the bucolic six-acre consulate compound, everything was calm. Then at around 9:40, according to the State Department’s records, the sound of gunfire erupted, and an American diplomatic security agent looking at closed-circuit TV screens in the operations center saw armed men swarming through the compound. He hit the alarm and started shouting, “Attack! Attack!” over the loudspeaker.
In Washington, senior State Department officials at headquarters in Foggy Bottom could follow developments minute by minute as the agent in the operations center reported them. The toxic smoke was so thick in the main villa that Ubben, the ambassador, and Smith could barely see. They tried to take refuge in a small bathroom with a window, but there wasn’t enough air. Ubben, barely able to breathe or speak, opened a bedroom window and rolled out onto a little patio protected by sandbags. Tracer bullets whizzed through the air nearby, and every so often he heard deafening explosions. Ubben, an Iraq War veteran, thought he was under fire, but at that point that was not his first concern. The ambassador and Smith hadn’t followed him out. Ubben went back, but he couldn’t find them. He radioed the other agents, half strangling as he talked. They joined the search through the clouds of smoke and toxic fumes. Finally, one found Smith and pulled him out, but he was already dead. They could not find the ambassador.
In the White House, President Obama was meeting with National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to review the options, but the news they were getting from the fledgling government in Libya was crazily contradictory. The only thing for sure was that the Americans in the consulate were facing a concerted terrorist assault, and the local forces hadn’t been able to make a difference. A Libyan relief force of 40 made it to the consulate but were overwhelmed. A second couldn’t get there because roads were blocked by the attackers, and they came under sniper fire.
In fact, the closest crack combat unit, described by State Department officials as a six-man “quick-reaction security team,” was only about a mile away at the CIA annex. But by the time it arrived accompanied by 16 Libyans, the consulate villa was burning and the ambassador seemed to have disappeared.
The compound was still full of attackers, and the Libyans in the rescue team started to insist that “it’s time to leave. We’ve got to leave.” The five diplomatic-security agents crowded into an armored vehicle with Smith’s body, driving through a hail of bullets impacting the windows and explosives thrown under the tires. At last they made it to the CIA annex.
At the consulate, smoke in the burning villa was thinning out; crowds of curiosity seekers and looters were moving in. As they rummaged through the building, they came across a blond man in a white shirt and gray pants, his nose and mouth blackened by soot and body fluids. They dragged him out through the window at the back of the villa. “The man is alive,” shouted someone in the crowd. “Move out of the way.” Then several other men shouted: “Alive! Alive! God is great.” But when the man was taken to the hospital, the doctors couldn’t revive him. And finally, at 2:30 in the morning, someone identified him positively as Ambassador Stevens.
The survivors of the consulate attack had regrouped at the CIA annex. The quick-reaction team returned, and some skirmishing continued with shooters who had apparently followed the cars. But after a while a relative calm settled over the compound, like the pause near the end of a horror movie when the monster is supposed to be dead, but he’s not.
Hours passed. A handful of American reinforcements landed at Tripoli airport, and a group of about 30 Libyans drawn from different militias joined them. Some of those in the Libyan contingent who talked to Newsweek have given the only firsthand account so far of what happened at the CIA outpost in Benghazi. And while much of the assault on the consulate had been amateurish, depending on lax security, this attack had the mark of real professionals.
“Before we even showed up, they were there waiting,” says a Libyan militia officer who calls himself Ibn Febrayir. At about 4 a.m., as Febrayir and his men prepared to evacuate the Americans from the CIA compound, the street was dead quiet. And then a shot rang out. Then within seconds there was a whooshing sound of rocket-propelled grenades being fired, raining down into the annex compound from attackers in positions concealed on rooftops and behind a stand of trees. In two minutes 15 RPGs hit. Then a pause. Then came the muffled sound of a mortar going off, and a devastating detonation as it hit the roof of one of the annex buildings. “It was a good shot,” says Febrayir. “Whoever fired it knew what they were doing.” It was dark. And they were too accurate. “They must have known the coordinates,” said Febrayir. He and his forces retreated down the road. Inside the annex, the high explosive rounds lobbed on top of the buildings killed two members of the quick-reaction team, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who had taken up positions defending the compound. Special agent Ubben, who was barely able to move because of the smoke inhalation, also was hit by the blast but survived.
The shooting at the annex went on for about 15 minutes, says one member of Febrayir’s team. And then it stopped as abruptly as it had started. The assailants simply disappeared.
In Washington, President Obama ordered warships to sail toward the Libyan coast and Special Operations forces to be ready for action. At about 5.30 a.m., Febrayir got a call from a Tripoli official warning him that by 6 a.m. “a foreign force” would arrive and everyone near “the farm,” as the Libyans call the annex, would be treated as “hostile.” “You must get out,” the Tripoli official told him. But in the end a motley crowd of militias showed up to escort the survivors to the airport, and even Febrayir wasn’t sure he could trust them.
Just one day after Obama’s speech in front of the Pentagon, he stood in the Rose Garden at the White House. “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” he said. “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”