Was Benghazi Attack on U.S. Consulate an Inside Job?

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The sun had risen over a hazy Benghazi about an hour earlier, and as he grabbed the wheel of his militia’s beaten-up white Toyota pickup, 42-year-old Ibn Febrayir (not his real name) groused to himself that this was no way to treat an ambassador, especially U.S. envoy Christopher Stevens. He had heard war tales about the lanky, good-natured Californian. How he had ventured to the shifting front lines during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and during lulls shared the rebels’ impromptu meals, ready to swap jokes and flash a winning smile, even when regime forces were mounting a counter-offensive.

Febrayir was dog-tired. His wife had been calling him incessantly all night and he hadn’t answered. Earlier he’d led an unsuccessful relief effort on the U.S. consulate after Salafist militants had launched an assault on the mission on the night of Sept. 11—but with his detachment being fired on, and the roads around the consulate blocked, he hadn’t been able to reach it in time. Later he had met eight U.S. Marines at Benghazi’s airport and accompanied them with a ragtag force of about 30 fighters to the so-called annex, the CIA compound, where an assortment of Americans—diplomats, guards, and intelligence officers—were waiting impatiently to be evacuated. He had been shot at and, he suspected, betrayed. He was in no mood for any more surprises. He tugged at his closely cropped beard.

As he drove through the gates of the Benghazi Medical Center, he looked in his mirror to check on the two men in the back. He’d ordered them to sit on either side of the ambassador to keep the body on a plastic stretcher from sliding off the short flatbed. “This is no way to treat an ambassador,” he muttered again. And then he drove at high speed toward the airport through a Benghazi that was slowly waking from the nighttime mayhem.

The story of the night America lost its first ambassador since 1979 to violence is like a jigsaw puzzle—the pieces are fitting together slowly and the picture is emerging but is still not complete and might not be for months. In trying to figure out the puzzle, U.S. investigators are not being helped by the lack of reliable information coming from Tripoli. The inquiry that Libyan leaders promised the day after the attack has stalled. Who’s in charge? No one really knows. “That’s a million-dollar question,” admits an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushugar. Accompanied by aides, he turns and asks them who’s now formally heading the probe. Debate ensues and it is hazarded that the attorney general might be in charge.

An adviser to Mohamed al-Magarief, the president of the General National Congress, the country’s parliament, concedes nothing much is happening with the inquiry and acknowledges that American officials in Washington, D.C., are frustrated by the lack of progress. “In some ways and at some level, they are understanding, but it isn’t a good answer to give them. They can see our difficulties—we don’t have the organization or the authority to push the inquiry,” he says. “But they are under pressure themselves—especially with the election days away.”

The election tick-tock unnerves Libyan leaders. They worry that President Barack Obama may do something precipitous, especially if his poll numbers drop. They worry about a drone strike on targets in eastern Libya—that would be a gift to jihadists, they say. Do the Americans have targets? Magarief’s adviser thinks they may—though he doesn’t know whether they would include the masterminds behind the attack on Stevens. “They had surveillance drones monitoring that night. They will have identified some people and traced where they are now.” And, of course, the information on jihadists and militants in Libya being gathered by more than a dozen intelligence agents and contractors in the CIA compound before Sept. 11 is likely also to be useful in the hunt.

When one tries to piece together the story of what happened in Benghazi, discrepancies stand out. For one thing, the timing of events given by officials in Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi don’t quite match. The State Department timeline is at variance with the recollection of Libyans manning the Benghazi combined operations room, a coordinating center between the various revolutionary militias “approved” by the government, located a 10-minute drive from the U.S. consulate. The Libyans have the attack starting between 8:30 and 9 p.m. The Americans place it at about 9:40 p.m. The Libyans have the American security guards fleeing the consulate with the body of Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, one of the four Americans killed that night, in an armored SUV 45 minutes to an hour earlier than the Americans do, at around 10 p.m.

There are other inconsistencies, one especially bewildering. The State Department says a six-man Rapid Reaction Force was dispatched from the CIA compound, 1.2 miles away from the consulate, as the assault on the mission unfolded. Militia commanders in the Benghazi operations room that night—housed in the barracks of the Feb. 17 militia on the Tripoli Road, a former army installation that had a grim Gaddafi-era reputation—say they have no knowledge of such a force being present at the consulate.

libya-OV03-secondary Mohammad Hannon / AP

Certainly, some of the discrepancies could be explained by the confusion of battle or the faulty recollection of men under extreme stress. Miscommunication between Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi almost certainly plays a part. Militia commanders on the ground had no direct contact with senior U.S. officials in D.C. or with the Marines who had arrived to evacuate their compatriots. In Tripoli, army chiefs were talking with U.S. military officials—Libyan Army Chief of Staff Yussef al-Mangoush was overseas but on the conversation by cellphone—while the Libyan civilian leadership was in contact with senior State Department officials and the White House. With so many cooks in the kitchen, it is hardly surprising there was confusion.

But there are other holes in the story. No one has come up with a definitive explanation of how armed militants managed to gain entry to the consulate’s six-acre compound so easily—which is critical to figuring out whether the Benghazi attack was an inside job.

Early reports suggested the gates might have been blown open. But none of the gates show any evidence of this. The back and side gates bear no damage at all, and the black wrought-iron gate at the front sports only two small-caliber bullet holes. The yellow-painted walls around the front gate bear only four ricochet marks made by heavier weaponry, presumably AK-47s.

So maybe the militants scaled the compound’s walls, instead. The four-building consulate property backs onto Benghazi’s busy Venice Road and fronts onto a quiet residential side street of large villas. On three sides, the compound is surrounded by high, breeze-block walls ranging from eight to nine feet, depending on the level of the ground. The walls are topped off by concertina wire. But the fourth wall is lower, more of a fence, and could easily have been vaulted that night without the four armed Libyan or five American diplomatic security guards noticing until the assailants had moved through the orchards of fruit trees. U.S. State Department briefers say the diplomatic security agent manning the CCTV monitors raised the alarm when he saw armed men already pouring through the compound.

Who were these attackers? In the immediate aftermath of the assault, Libyan leaders produced startlingly conflicting statements. They blamed the “men of the Gaddafi regime” and al Qaeda in quick succession. Then, after eyewitnesses fingered local extremists, they focused on a Benghazi-based Salafist militia called Ansar al-Sharia, which had been founded after the toppling of Gaddafi. The adviser to GNC President al-Magarief, who had initially blamed al Qaeda, now says Ansar al-Sharia is indeed behind the attack. “They look to al Qaeda and have some contact with them,” he says.

Last week, it emerged that the Americans already had leads on Ansar al-Sharia’s involvement a mere two hours after the assault began, culled from what spooks like to call “open sources”—in this case, Twitter and Facebook. An email sent on the night of the attack by the State Department to the White House noted that American diplomats in the Libyan capital reported that the militia had “claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli.”

Days later, Ansar al-Sharia disavowed responsibility for the attack. But some of its leaders had already distanced themselves from the ambassador’s death on the very night of the siege, according to new information obtained by Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Militia sources in Benghazi say that four Ansar al-Sharia leaders, including spokesman Hani Mansouri, arrived at the Benghazi operations room to dissociate themselves from the violence. The Benghazi commanders were reportedly startled and disbelieving of the men’s claims at first, but then grudgingly accepted their persistent disavowals. Still, an ops-room source stresses that the militiamen did not say whether others in their group may have been involved, and later showed no sadness over Stevens’s death.

There are scant signs of any serious investigation into Ansar al-Sharia at the moment—a marked departure from the frenetic interest in the group in the days following the assault. On the heels of the attack, Libyan officials picked up a couple dozen people they said may have had information about the siege. Four remain in custody and all are linked to Ansar al-Sharia. But major figures in the Benghazi Salafist and jihadist firmament have not been questioned—including Ahmed Abu Khattala, the founder of another Salafist militia called Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah, which has some crossover membership with Ansar al-Sharia. The 41-year-old Khattala has publicly admitted that he was at the consulate on the night of Sept. 11—he says it was to rescue some friends trapped inside—but has told American reporters that no Libyan investigators have contacted him yet. And the four Ansar commanders who declared their innocence at the Benghazi operations room at the very least might have had knowledge of who was involved.

In the swirl of rumor and conjecture, hard facts and eyewitness statements from credible participants such as Febrayir are a godsend. Although he has no firsthand, on-the-ground knowledge to impart about the assault on the consulate, he was at the center of the action subsequently and provided a two-hour-long narrative of what he saw and experienced that night. His story highlights the confusion and miscommunication on the ground in the attack’s aftermath, and it underscores the suspicion between the Americans and the Libyans, and among the Libyans themselves.

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The lean, tall Febrayir was a leather worker before the uprising and joined the rebellion against Gaddafi right from the start. A serious man with a cautious smile, he—along with about 30 other rebels—was handpicked by the rebel leadership for special-forces training in April 2011, and for 28 days was rushed through a course in the eastern Libyan Green Mountains supervised by four Turkish officers. He believes both assaults—on the consulate and CIA compound—were efficiently planned, although the second attack was more professional and clinical, he says.

“Once we knew the Americans were out of the consulate compound, we ordered a full withdrawal by all Libyan forces from the consulate,” he recalls. News of a battle at the U.S. consulate went around Benghazi like wildfire, attracting curiosity-seekers, looters, and hotheads. “Crowds of civilians were turning up,” Febrayir says. “We became afraid people would be caught in crossfire. The operations room was worried that the problem would get bigger and fighting would escalate.”

He was ordered to the Benghazi airport to pick up a group of about a dozen flying in from Tripoli and to accompany them to the Benghazi Medical Center. He wasn’t informed about their identities and only discovered they were Americans when he arrived at the airport with five white Toyota pickups and 20 men. Two large armored SUVs with darkened windows eventually pulled out from the runway and he was ordered by radio to follow. Behind him were two cars full of men from the Libyan Shield, a militia-based force that reports to Libya’s defense ministry. He noticed two Chevy cars also left the airport with them. He never found out who they were, and they worried him over the next few hours.

Five kilometers down the airport road, the armored SUVs stopped. An American, who spoke fluent Arabic and clearly was Arabic by ethnicity, got out of the car. “The American said, ‘We don’t want to cause suspicion. The armored SUVs will go out ahead and then you guys follow at a distance.’” A heated argument broke out. None of the Libyans were happy and argued they had strict orders to protect the Americans. It was about 3 a.m. and the argument lasted about 15 minutes. “It struck me as bizarre. There we were on the airport road and people screaming at each other.” The few passersby slowed and watched.

The American acquiesced eventually, and the convoy proceeded. “Suddenly the SUVs changed direction and headed the wrong way for the medical center.” Confused and frustrated, Febrayir later got a radio call from his ops room telling him just to follow. Later he learned the Americans were using GPS to navigate to the CIA compound and didn’t want to talk with the Libyans or on the radio about where they were heading to avoid alerting attackers. They too were afraid of informants.

The annex is on the outskirts of Benghazi down a residential road. Close to the consulate it feels far more isolated, with waste and farmland nearby. On the night that Febrayir took Newsweek and The Daily Beast there to reconstruct what happened, he got lost in the dark. “This isn’t the easiest place to find. No wonder the Americans needed GPS,” he said.

When the armored SUVs pulled up, the double-fronted iron and frosted-glass gate swung open instantly and large, armed Americans got out and moved swiftly inside. Five minutes later, a Libyan came out saying, “I have 32 Americans to get out and one body bag.”

“All my vehicles were pickup trucks and I had four people already in them, and then I had three other cars who joined us on the way,” Febrayir says. He suggested they call up a bus, but the Libyan said there was no time; they had to get to the airport quickly. There was no shooting at this stage. Febrayir walked back to his force.

In the dimly-lit street, he told his men the Americans would sit inside the pick-ups and they would all have to climb up on the flatbeds. It was about 4 a.m. As they did so, a small-caliber single shot rang out. Febrayir froze; so did his men. Within seconds there was a whooshing sound of several rocket-propelled grenades being fired. Then a mortar hit the annex roof with startling accuracy, killing former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The accuracy of the mortar round points to an experienced hand. “But then we have many fighters nowadays who fought in the rebellion and who are experienced with mortars,” Febrayir says.

“Before we even showed up they were there waiting,” Febrayir says. He remains convinced that the security for the rescue was compromised and that attackers were not only eavesdropping on radio chatter but were fed by someone from inside the operations room. He never found out who was exactly in the Chevys. They sped off—as did the two Libyan Shield cars. He never saw them again.

“We only had light weapons, and the attackers had heavy weapons. I was afraid for my men. We were exposed and I shouted out at my men not to fire. We couldn’t see where the attackers were located through the trees,” he says. He ordered a withdrawal while fire was directed at the compound. “We were easy targets. I am not talking about running away, but effecting a tactical withdrawal and then to call up more support.” They pulled back to an adjacent road. Febrayir got out and as he did, he heard a voice calling through the dark and from some dense trees nearby, using his full name, warning him to take his people out completely. Spooked, he ordered his men to pull a few hundred meters further back.

Shooting at the annex went on for a quarter of an hour before it stopped as abruptly as it had started. For the next hour, orders were issued, countermanded, and reissued by the operations room. There were no further attacks on the annex, but no one had any idea whether the assailants had remained. Febrayir told the operations room to stop using the radio. “Anyone who wants to talk to me should phone on my cellphone.”

There was talk that the Americans were about to send in another force, and Febrayir was told to get ready to pull out, but no U.S. force arrived. Instead, a large Libyan force turned up. Febrayir and his men secured a perimeter while the evacuation proceeded, and then his detachment followed as around 50 vehicles navigated their way out.

But Febrayir wasn’t finished. On the way to the airport, he was ordered to head to Benghazi Medical Center to pick up a body. The instructions were sent over the radio, to his fury. Later at about 7:15 a.m. he was told—this time via a cellphone call—that the body was the ambassador’s.

After his men had tied up the morgue supervisor, who had refused to hand over the body, Febrayir, fearful of an attempt to snatch the corpse, ignored instructions about what route to follow to the airport and misinformed his superiors with false updates. His caravan traveled fast, driving straight onto the runaway. Six Americans approached. “They looked totally fatigued. Their faces were blackened,” Febrayir says. “I think they had been in the consulate. One of them clambered onto the back and uncovered Stevens’s face and started to cry.”

Jamie Dettmer is an independent foreign correspondent who has been a staff journalist for The Times of London, The Sunday Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday, and the Irish Sunday Tribune.