It has taken more than four weeks, but the facts of the assault on the American consulate in Benghazi are slowly emerging.
It is now known that on the evening of September 11, 2012, Ambassador Christopher Stevens conducted a scheduled meeting with a Turkish diplomat. At approximately 8:30 PM, the ambassador saw his visitor out the gate. There were no protesters in front of the consulate then, nor did any of the survivors of the attack report the presence of demonstrators prior to the initial assault. Videotapes recovered from the compound show, at least partially, what happened.
At 9:40 PM, rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons tore into the front of the compound. Inside the consulate, American security personnel immediately contacted the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, as well as the State Department Crisis Desk in Washington, informing both locations that they were under attack. Per standing orders, Ambassador Stevens and diplomat Sean Smith were placed in a safe room in the ambassador’s residence. Within minutes, an outbuilding housing a Libyan security force was on fire, and the militiamen assigned to protect the compound had melted away into the night.
Incoming RPG and machine gun fire became so heavy that the security officers were forced to retreat and barricade themselves into a command center adjacent to the Ambassador’s residence. Now holed up in separate buildings, the Americans were surrounded. The situation would rapidly go from bad to worse. The consulate summoned a U.S. quick reaction force stationed in a security compound across town. Accompanied by sixty Libyan security guards, four American agents set out in an armored SUV to break the siege. Before they could reach the compound, terrorists had forced their way into both of the consulate’s residential buildings. Failing to break through the locked grate work that protected Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith, the assaulters splashed diesel fuel and set the building on fire. Smoke and flames rapidly filled the residence.
American and Libyan security personnel were eventually able to fight their way in and establish a shaky perimeter. Crawling on hands and knees, rescuers entered the smoke-clogged building in an attempt to reach Stevens and Smith. The Ambassador’s body could not be located. Sean Smith’s was discovered and dragged from the flames—but he was unresponsive and succumbed to smoke inhalation on scene. Under increasingly heavy gunfire, the Americans were forced to abandon the effort to recover the remaining bodies.
Gathering the survivors, the rescuers placed Smith’s body into the armored SUV and began an arduous journey back to the security compound. After forcing their way through the ring of gunmen who had encircled the consulate, the vehicle was ambushed repeatedly. Pocked by bullets, and with two tires flattened by a grenade attack, the SUV managed to reach the relative safety of the security compound sometime after 11 PM. This location, too, came under attack, enduring several hours of mortar, RPG, and heavy machine gun fire until the terrorist force withdrew shortly before dawn.
In addition to Ambassador Stevens and State Department information specialist Sean Smith, two ex-Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed in the attack. Another of the American rescuers, also a special operations veteran, was severely wounded. Videos posted later on Islamic websites showed the body of one of the American victims being dragged from the building amid chants of God is great. The ugly footage showed a bullet-riddled, smoke-streaked building, torn by explosions and thoroughly looted.
Days after the attack, America’s ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, made the rounds of the Sunday Morning news programs, stating that the Benghazi consulate was burned during an anti-American demonstration. The State Department, and presumably the White House, were by then in possession of the basic facts of the incident, and knew, from communications sent directly from Benghazi and Tripoli, that the attack was a terrorist action involving heavy weapons and mortars. Why, then, was the administration pushing a story of mob action? What was to be gained from concealing the true circumstances of the incident?
It is now known that in the weeks prior to the attack, the United States State Department not only saw fit to reduce security for the consulate but refused repeated requests by Ambassador Stevens and Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom for fences, transportation assets, and special operations forces to augment security. Nordstrom has since testified to congressional investigators that he was ordered to reduce its American security footprint and to rely more on local forces to defend the American consulate. Nordstrom and other security officers in Libya were told to make do with less.
The results of this policy were catastrophic. The militiamen detailed to guard the American Ambassador’s residence fled in the first minutes of the raid— leaving Christopher Stevens and his two-man security detail vulnerable. That al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri released a video on September 10th, urging Libyans to attack American targets can hardly be ignored. The failure of the State Department to head this explicit warning and protect our ambassador to Libya is at best negligent, and at worst shows a capricious misunderstanding of the facts on the ground.
In the days following the attack, the White House put forward a story that was incompletely informed, if not disingenuous. That the White House deliberately misstated the circumstances surrounding the death of four American citizens is simply too shameful to consider. The September 11th assault on the Benghazi consulate is the single worst attack on an American diplomatic post since the Tehran embassy siege in 1979. The American people deserve a full and open investigation into the murder of Ambassador Stevens. They deserve also to know about the gallant actions of the brave Americans who tried to meet this terrorist attack with woefully inadequate resources.
It took eleven years, but an Al Qaeda affiliated terror group had finally succeeded in a 9/11 anniversary attack. Benghazi matters -- both for what happened on that terrible night and what happened afterwards.
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ambassador Chris Stevens' body was recovered and Sean Smith's was not.
Chuck Pfarrer is a former Assault Element Commander at SEAL Team Six. He is the New York Times bestselling author of SEAL Target Geronimo: Inside the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, and Warrior Soul: The memoir of a Navy SEAL. Pfarrer serves presently as an Associate Editor of The Counterterrorist Journal and is a distinguished fellow of the US Naval Special Warfare Institute.