15 Months Of Bullets And Talk Shows: Benghazi Revisited


On September 11, 2012, eleven years after the Twin Towers fell in New York, the United States Embassy in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by a heavily armed group. The assault began at night on the outskirts of a compound meant to protect the main building. A second attack, early morning of the very next day, targeted a CIA building nearby in a separate compound. Four people ended up dead, including the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Ten people were injured in the attack which was condemned by the governments of multiple countries including Libya and the United States.

Libyans staged several public demonstrations against the military that formed during the civil war and riots, all to oppose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan diplomacy moved to disband many of the groups that formed in response. In response to the attacks at Benghazi, the United States increased security worldwide at diplomatic and military facilities and compounds while launching an investigation into the attack.

Now, after spending the past 15 months under the microscope, we have seen the tragedy in Benghazi fall under scrutiny after scrutiny. We have seen it suffer controversy concerning lying and cover-ups and we have heard multiple conspiracy theories that span the notion that the United States was heavily cognizant of the fact that this was a terrorist attack, despite initial reports and statements that pointed towards a violent response to a documentary.

Innocence In ‘Innocence’

The documentary, Innocence of Muslims, is an inflammatory video that sparked outrage among the Muslim community. Between September 11th and the 17th, eight other diplomatic operations in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe were subject to violent protests that turned into riots. However, after an investigation by the U.S. State Department and the House of Representatives committees on Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, the Judiciary, and Oversight and Government Reform determined that there was not a protest of this kind in Benghazi, and the attack was premeditated and enacted by Islamist militants and extremists.

In 2011, the Libyan civil war came to a head, leading to the overthrowing of Gaddafi. That spring, weapons began to be shipped to rebels and militia groups within and around Qatar with American approval. In July of the same year, anti-aircraft missiles were being taken from the bunkers of Gaddafi’s regime by the rebels. By September of 2011, officials with the Western counter-terrorism efforts had become concerned with the role Islamic radicals were playing in the revolt in Libya, particularly with the weapons acquired in raids and that could be used in future terrorist attacks.

In the wake of the Libyan revolution, the United States thought it pertinent to start building the presence of the CIA in Benghazi. During the violence in Libya, America’s Delta Force— elite counter-terrorist operators— were deployed as analysts to instruct rebels on munitions and attack methods. The Ambassador who eventually lost his life on September 11, 2012, J. Christopher Stevens, was named the first intermediary with Libyan opposition starting in March of 2011. Both the CIA and the U.S. State Department were responsible for identifying and collecting the arms that had flooded into the country during the war, and especially the chemical weapons that Libya had stocked up.

In the months that led up to the attack at Benghazi, increased violence, riots, and an overt instability in Libya, and also towards American strength in the country was significant. In a letter to Secretary of State Clinton from Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), attacks from the previous months were detailed — violence that includes car jacking, assassination attempts, and gun battles. The letter stated, “Put together, these events indicated a clear pattern of security threats that could only be reasonably interpreted to justify increased security for U.S. personnel and facilities in Benghazi.”

On the day of the attack, between 125 and 150 gunmen, some reported to have been “wearing the Afghan-style tunics favored by Islamic militants,” were noted as having participated in the strike. The attack started during the night, the attackers warding off the streets that led to the main compound with gun trucks. The trucks were reported to have displayed the emblem of Ansar al-Sharia, a group of Islamist rebels working with local government to oversee vulnerabilities in Benghazi.

There had been no immediate sign of a protest against the American-made documentary, Innocence of Muslims, belittling Islamic Prophet Muhammad, however it was reported by the Associated Press that a lawyer witnessed militants rallying, somewhere around 20 people, from nearby to protest against the film. In reports cited by the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press, the dissent was in response to the documentary. The witness described a scene of chanting and general outrage.

Death Of An Ambassador

At 9:40 pm (local time), a group of armed men attacked the compound from several different directions. Grenades were volleyed over the wall by the attackers before entering the compound using heavy fire from automatic weapons and RPGs as cover to stall defenses. A call cut across the vast expanse of the compound, a Diplomatic Security Service agent shouted into the loudspeaker “Attack! Attack!” Then the attackers entered the main building. In their hands, they carried cans of diesel fuel to spread across the floor and furniture, ultimately setting the compound ablaze.

The Regional Security Office placed the alarm signals into distress, placing calls to the Benghazi CIA annex and embassy in Tripoli that the compound had fallen under attack.

In the United States at the time of the attack, Diplomatic Security Service agents told their counterparts in Washington about the attack as it began to take place. The Pentagon called in an aerial drone that was in the area conducting surveillance over Benghazi. The drone arrived at approximately 11:10 pm local time and began providing a secure video feed to Washington.

A few of the Libyans who entered the compound tried to rescue Stevens after they found him on the floor trapped in the smoke-filled room, unconscious and unresponsive. The men pulled him out of the room, using the window as an exit. A video published after the attack by a freelance videographer, 22-year-old Fahd al-Bakoush, shows the story of Libyans trying to save Stevens from the smoke that was clogging the air around the fallen ambassador. That footage can be seen here.

Stevens later died from asphyxiation caused by smoke inhalation, no other injuries were found on his body.

A ‘Definitive’ Attack

Just after midnight that night, the CIA annex fell under attack, an assault that included rocket, machine gun, and mortar fire. Defenses within the annex held off the attack until the morning of September 12. The next morning, governing forces from Libya alongside a group of Americans started an evacuation operation to transport approximately 32 Americans at the annex back to the airport.

When they drove through the gates after securing the Americans, the annex fell under another round of heavy fire. A serious mortar attack was directed on a building that Tyrone S. Woods, Glen Doherty, and two other agents were on top of after having taken defensive positions on the roof. Both Woods and Doherty were fatally wounded.

It was decided after the assessment of the mortar damage that evacuation was vital to the safety of the people within the annex. Within minutes of the order, vehicles and people were loaded and departed for the airport. They were attacked with small arms fire, but arrived to the airport with no additional injuries.

In a report titled “Benghazi: The Definitive Report”, it’s approximated that just under 100 attackers were killed, a fact that’s been ignored by numerous new media organizations.

On September 10, 2012, at least 18 hours before the attack in Benghazi, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attack. The video called for new attacks on Americans stationed in Libya, avenging the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was fatally wounded by a drone strike in June 2012. A few days after the attack on September 14, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released another statement arguing that the attack was a revenge mission for the death of al-Libi, however they didn’t claim ultimate responsibility for the attack at Benghazi.

In a report written by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, it is stated that 20-year-old Mohamed Bishari witnessed the attack. In an account given by Bishari, the attack on Benghazi was without warning or protest and was ultimately led by the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia, designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organization. Cited in the report, Kirkpatrick details al-Sharia stating that they were planning on launching the assault in the retaliation for the release of the documentary that was decidedly anti-Islamic, Innocence of Muslims.

CNN correspondent Sarah Aarthun quoted an anonymous senior U.S. administration official two days after the attack: “It was not an innocent mob. The video or 9/11 made a handy excuse and could be fortuitous from their perspective but this was a clearly planned military-type attack.”

During a press statement made by President Obama on the Late Show with David Letterman, President Obama said that “extremists and terrorists used [the anti-Muslim YouTube video] as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies.”

All reports pointed to the video as a spark for the fire that erupted across Benghazi. As of then, all administration officials called the attacks as a violent response to the film and made no statements about the possibility of a premeditated attack.

Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur condemned the attack and apologized: “While strongly condemning any attempt to abuse the person of Muhammad, or an insult to our holy places and prejudice against faith, we reject and strongly condemn the use of force to terrorize innocent people and the killing of innocent people.” The statement ended with an apology to the United States and a promise that “We confirm that no-one will escape from punishment and questioning.”

Demonstrations took place the next day, protesting the violence and holding signs that read “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans,” “Benghazi is against terrorism.” In the days following the attack, social media was flooded with messages from Libyans that expressed pro-American sentiments.

Then on September 16, Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf stated that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was planned months in advance, noting that “the idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous. We firmly believe that it was a pre-calculated, pre-planned attack that was carried out specifically to attack the U.S. consulate.”

Bullets And Talk Shows

A change in government affairs and armed militant groups across the country continued to tide through Libya, a rippling affect from the wake of the tragedy that took place at Benghazi.

On September 21, 30,000 Libyans led a protest through Benghazi calling for support of the rule of law and for an abrupt ending to the militias that had banded together during the Libyan civil war. Protesters took to marching into numerous militia headquarters to speak against armed rebel groups. Approximately 10 people were killed as militiamen took aim on demonstrators at the establishment of Sahaty Brigade, a pro-government militia. The protesters, despite opposition from the aggressively responding militia leaders, forced rebel groups to flee and went on to take control of a number of compounds.

Libya took this time to seize control of the momentum against the militias, leading to the Libyan president proclaiming that all unauthorized militias had 48 hours to disband or come under control of the central government. Bearing arms in public was now declared illegal. Across the country, militia groups began to surrender to control by the government.

In the United States, controversy over what really transpired at Benghazi started to take full effect when then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on several talk shows to talk about the attacks.

As is standard for press interviews, she was provided talking points from a memo that said: The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direst assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently it’s annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.

Rice went on the air to say: “We do not— we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or pre-planned. I think it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence.”

By September 18, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained that the attack, based on the information that he had, as not having evidence to substantiate claims that it was a terrorist attack or premeditated in any way.

The statement above and the one indicated by Susan Rice were both shrugged off on September 20 when Carney answered a question about an open hearing with the director of the National Counterterrorrism Center, Matthew Olsen. Carney said: “It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.

In the days following, several administration officials such as Hillary Clinton began to acknowledge that there was a link between Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Benghazi attacks. However, mass criticism fell over the United States response to the attacks, citing the over-emphasizing or “fabricating” the role of Islamic outrage over Innocence of Muslims and accused the administration of being too hesitant to label the events of Benghazi as a “terrorist attack.”

The End Game

The event at Benghazi before, during, and after the attack was a prolific part of the 2012 U.S. Presidential election. In the months following the election, Republican members of Congress launched investigations into the attack, most of which are currently ongoing, and the topic continues to be a matter of great controversy, including the CIA’s presence and role in the mission.

In a presidential debate on October 16 2012, Mitt Romney called out President Obama for the time between the attack and the labeling of it as terrorist activity: “…it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” After several Fact Checker articles by conservative news outlets, President Obama was accused of covering-up what had taken place at Benghazi, sparking debate over the differentiation of the phrases “act of terror” and “act of terrorist,” when the president described the attacks as an “act of terror.”

Susan Rice’s comments in 2012 have put her career under fire, the what-did-they-really-know controversy that has kept the administration under fire for allegedly covering-up what actually took place in Benghazi several weeks after the attacks. There are several accusations that Rice deliberately made misleading statements including calling the attack “spontaneous.”

“I think the current administration has taken lying to a new level,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in a Politico.com report.

As of August 6, 2013, the United States filed criminal charges against multiple suspects, including militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala for an alleged involvement in the attacks. Only a few arrests have been made to date, however, and no one has been prosecuted or indefinitely detained in the ongoing Benghazi investigation.

Ian Proegler

Ian Proegler

Deeply sarcastic and opinionated, mildly nosy, and lover of all things ironic. I write for and about advocacy groups and political news (or scandals, yay).
Ian Proegler