Why did the CIA let a crazed al-Qaeda mob kill America’s ambassador? Moment by moment, the atrocity that’s sent the U.S. into a frenzy of suspicion and recrimination

  • The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was  attacked on September 11, 2012
  • A group of armed jihadists attacked the  building and set it alight
  • Four people died in the attack, including  Ambassador Christopher Stevens

By  Tony Rennell

PUBLISHED: 16:17 EST, 13  September 2013 |  UPDATED: 16:39 EST, 13 September 2013

Fumbling in the dark, the American ambassador  hurriedly pulled on bullet-proof body armour over his blue trousers and T-shirt.  A shrill warning siren was sounding and the crash of gunshots could be heard,  getting closer by the second.

‘Follow me, sir,’ urged a diplomatic  bodyguard, gripping his M4 assault rifle, shouldering an additional pump-action  shotgun and looking anxiously around him as they set out along blacked-out  corridors. ‘We are under attack.’

It was 9.40pm in the United States diplomatic  mission in Benghazi, the second city of strife-torn Libya, a country trying to  re-build itself in the aftermath of civil war and the ousting and killing of its  mad dictator, Colonel Gaddafi.

Under fire: An armed jihadist waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012 

Under fire: An armed jihadist waves his rifle as  buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the  U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012


The year was 2012 and the date hugely  significant for the American and Arab worlds alike — September 11, the  anniversary of the 9/11 attack by Islamic terrorists on the Twin Towers in New  York.

To mark it, one of the many rogue militia  armies that were now ripping Libya apart as the so-called Arab Spring turned  sour fired up a mob to launch a murderous assault on this vulnerable U.S.  outpost.

It was an attack that would not only cost  American lives, but bring embarrassment and humiliation to the Obama White House  that it has not been able to shrug off.

Heavily armed and flying the black flags of  Al Qaeda, the terrorists arrived en masse at the eight-acre Mission Compound,  whose outer defences — manned by local guards of doubtful loyalty — collapsed  all too easily in the initial onslaught. A rocket-propelled grenade took out the  front door of the ambassadors’ residence, and they were in.

As men poured through the opening, the safety  of Ambassador Chris Stevens — who had flown into Benghazi for a week of talks  with political leaders, businessmen and officials in the hope of bringing some  peace and order to the troubled and violent city — was top priority for the  handful of special agents of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service who were  guarding him.

Tragedy: Christopher Stevens and three other embassy staff were killed in Libya on September 11th last year 

Tragedy: Christopher Stevens and three other embassy  staff were killed in Libya on September 11th last year


Stevens, 52, was a highly respected Arabist,  a top-notch diplomat and an acknowledged friend of Libya. He believed fervently  that with U.S. help the country would flourish.

But in Libya’s political and religious  ferment, that made him a target. The Benghazi mission was a nervy place to  be.

It had been set up in a hurry in response to  the fast-moving political situation, with the result that basic security  measures were far short of the norm in U.S. establishments in the Middle  East.

Shockingly, Washington knew this. Just weeks  earlier, agents on the ground in Libya had sent an emergency message detailing  their fears that the post was under-manned, under-gunned and under-resourced,  and was not capable of withstanding a major terrorist attack.

There were, for example, no sprinklers, smoke  hoods and anti-fire foam. But nothing had been done, and it was now too  late.

At least, though, there was a specially built  safe haven at the heart of the main residence building, and it was into this  room that the bodyguard bundled Stevens and an aide, 34-year-old Sean Smith, a  communications wizard, and locked all three of them in behind its steel mesh  gate, with a sense of relief.

‘Package and one guest secure, hunkered  down,’ he reported on his hand-held radio to colleagues manning a command centre  in a neighbouring barracks building.

All the three could do was wait until rescue  arrived. They could only hope that help would reach them before the murderous  bunch now ransacking the residence did.

What happened next was, for all the courage  of the men involved, a catalogue of disaster and death. The events of that night  have now been told for the first time in a new gung-ho, all-guns-blazing  account.

As foreign governments debate the merits of  strikes on the Assad regime in Syria, the book is a timely reminder of how  American intervention in Middle Eastern trouble spots seems doomed to backfire,  however well intentioned. In the eyes of fundamentalists in those regions, the  U.S. is Satan — an enemy to be attacked and humiliated at any cost.

As Ambassador Stevens sat on the floor in the  safe room making calls on his BlackBerry to local leaders pleading in vain for  their help, he must have felt his dream of a free, regenerated and peaceful  Libya going up in smoke.

Literally smoke, because by now the building  was on fire, deliberately set alight by the dozens of armed intruders, some of  whom had now reached the safe room and were peering menacingly through the  grille.

Inside, the three Americans lay low,  quiet  and out of sight. The bodyguard — unnamed in the book for security reasons and  identified only as Agent A — panned his gun sight at one  screaming balaclavaed  head after another as they appeared at the grille  but held his fire rather than  reveal their presence in what was now  becoming a rapidly heating oven rather  than a haven.

A stifling heat built up within the safe  room, as clouds of black, acrid  smoke crept in. On his knees, the bodyguard  crawled through the choking  darkness to what was now the only possible exit — a  small iron-grilled  window in the adjoining bathroom.

With great difficulty, he heaved it open and  pulled himself out onto the  roof of the building, signalling to Stevens and  Smith to follow,  believing they were right behind him. He coughed repeatedly to  clear his soot-caked lungs and then stretched his arm back through the window to  haul the other two out.

No hand came to meet his. There was no sign  of either of them.  They were lost in the choking smoke.

Bravely Agent A — his hands already scorched,  his lungs hardly able to draw  breath — plunged back into the smoke and flames  to find them, not just  once but five, six times. Each time he re-emerged to  gasp a few lungfuls of air, bullets cracked around him from gunmen on the  ground.

Good work: Christopher Stevens was a pro-Libya ambassador who believed the country could stabilise and develop with the help from the U.S. 

Good work: Christopher Stevens was a pro-Libya  ambassador who believed the country could stabilise and develop with the help  from the U.S.


Frantic at having failed in a diplomatic  guard’s number one priority, he yelled into his radio. ‘I don’t have the  ambassador,’ he shouted at the embassy compound’s control centre.

The agents there were under siege too,  barricaded in and surrounded by hostile fire. Now they gathered their strength,  cleared the area outside the control centre with a grenade and then charged out,  shooting at anyone who lingered.

Three of them made it across open ground to  the residence and onto the roof where a distressed Agent A was still trying to  rescue the Ambassador and his aide.

Soaking their shirts in water and wrapping  them round their faces, they took over the search for the missing men, both by  now certainly unconscious inside the smoke-filled safe room, their lives hanging  in the balance.

Mercifully, help was at last coming.

A mile away was a heavily-fortified building  used by the CIA for covert intelligence-gathering in Benghazi.  Half the  staff there were Special Forces veterans — now racing to the embassy, battering  their way through road blocks and hails of hostile gunfire in armoured Mercedes  4x4s.

Equipped with full battle kit, they took back  control of the Mission Compound, forcing the marauders out. But for how  long?

In the streets outside, more gunmen,  dissidents and demonstrators were massing, chanting their bloodlust like  hyped-up fans at a football match.

‘Today we have attacked the infidels and  avenged the honour of Islam,’ a voice screamed through a microphone. ‘Let’s go  and finish the job!’

Meanwhile, back inside the safe room, the  lifeless body of Sean Smith had at last been found and was  carried out.  But there was still no sign of Ambassador Stevens.

What if he had been captured? Visions of  America’s diplomatic envoy being held for ransom, tortured, beheaded on film  even — all recent fates of U.S. citizens who had fallen into jihadist hands —  flashed through anxious minds. The search went on.

The mob, though, was pushing at the gates  again, firing bullets into the compound, eager for a battle, hundreds of them  against a dozen Americans. They swarmed into the grounds in the darkness. U.S.  snipers fired, leaving casualties strewn on the manicured lawns, but still the  mob came on, an unstoppable tide of hate.

There was no choice left for the Americans.  They had to retreat or die.

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was set alight on the evening of September 11, and the armed group returned the following day, with deadly results 

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was set alight on the  evening of September 11, and the armed group returned the following day, with  deadly results


Leaving without having found Ambassador  Stevens was a terrible decision for the diplomatic service agents. Even  supposing the man it was their job to protect was dead, there was the  gut-wrenching prospect of his body falling into terrorist hands and being  dragged through the streets, U.S. pride trampled in the dust.

But that thought had to be put aside. Escape  was the only option. Cramming into armoured Land Cruisers, they pushed their way  out of the compound and down roads filled with heavily armed men.

They exchanged machine gun fire with the mob  and swerved to avoid volleys of grenades. The tyres were torn to shreds as they  screamed round corners flat out until they screeched into the safety of the CIA  base.

It was over, a chance now to tend their  wounds . . . or was it?

The insurgents had not given up. If anything,  they were more enraged and more determined than ever at having let their quarry  get away.

They surrounded the CIA outpost in alarming  numbers wielding machine guns and grenade launchers. As explosions rocked its  walls, it was in real danger of being overrun.

The defence line was paper thin — just a  handful of American snipers in vantage points on the roof as overhead, a U.S.  Predator drone cruising backwards and forwards sent back to the defenders vivid  images of the sheer scale of the attack being mounted against them.

Not even the seven-man hit squad of trained  commandoes that had finally made it by air from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, the  capital city, to back up the Americans in Benghazi could swing the situation in  their favour.

Short of all 34 of them dying where they  stood in a last-ditch Alamo defence, they would have to get out.

Frantically, nervous CIA agents shredded  classified files and took sledgehammers to computers and hard drives brimming  with secrets, anxious that nothing should fall into enemy hands.

As preparations were made to break out of the  compound, another furious attack began, this time with an even deadlier weapon —  mortars.

Perched up on a roof, two former Navy Seals,  Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were picking off the attackers with their Mk 46  automatics when a mortar shell hit their position. Woods died instantly, his  friend Doherty seconds later, killed by another mortar round. Shrapnel cut down  other defenders.

Dawn was breaking, and in the early morning  light the next onslaught could well be final.

The battle was about to be lost, Americans  slaughtered, their nation humbled. But the Libyan army saved the day. As the sun  rose, Special Forces soldiers from its Military Intelligence section came  barrelling in with orders to get the Americans out of the country as quickly as  possible. The terrorist mob was driven back.

As the Muslim morning call to prayer echoed  around Benghazi, 32 weary survivors packed themselves and crate-loads of CIA  equipment into a convoy of vehicles and drove under escort to the airport for a  rapid exit from this place of destruction and death. They carried with them the  bodies of Smith, Doherty and Woods.

Destruction: The consulate was completely destroyed in the attack - a raid which Washington had been warned could come, and that the resources were not there to protects it should it happen 

Destruction: The consulate was completely destroyed in  the attack – a raid which Washington had been warned could come, and that the  resources were not there to protects it should it happen


But what of Ambassador Stevens? He had choked  to death in the flames of his residence, his body unrecovered by his  team.

At the now deserted Mission Complex, looters  wandered into the still  burning remains of the ambassador’s home. Abandoned  weapons, furniture,  iPods, mobile phones, the ambassador’s clothes, his  luggage, cigars,  bottles of water — everything was carried off in  triumph.

Eventually they forced their way into the  safe room — and there was Stevens’s  blackened body. It was carried out, laid on  the ground, propped up to be photographed and the pictures flashed around the  world to be gawped at.

Much worse indignities could well have been  heaped on it. Twenty years earlier, the corpse of an American soldier had been  dragged through Mogadishu in Somalia. The photograph was seen all over the  world.

Instead, local Libyan men — dressed in jeans  and football shirts rather than the jihadists’ uniform of dark shirts and combat  trousers — lifted the ambassador’s body into a car to rush it to Benghazi’s main  hospital. There doctors worked for 90 minutes in a desperate attempt to  resuscitate him.

It was a futile task, but the fact that it  was attempted at all in the circumstances is a surprise.

Even now there were Libyans who wanted to  distance themselves from the terrorists and send a message to Washington that  not everyone in that benighted country was its enemy.

Stevens’s remains were taken to the airport,  loaded on a plane and, along with the other three bodies and the survivors,  flown out. The Benghazi raid was over — but its aftermath haunts U.S. foreign  policy.

In a speech paying tribute to those who died,  President Barack Obama was emphatic that the U.S. would not be deterred from its  global mission. But his John Wayne confidence in America as the world’s  policeman has now backfired.

His allies edge away from intervention in  Syria, and U.S. voters show an understandable reluctance for their country’s  soldiers and diplomats to put their lives at risk in far off desert  nations.

A year on, the Benghazi raid is the focus of  bitter contention in the U.S., where accusations are made by senators and  conspiracy theorists alike that the Obama administration covered up — and  continues to obscure — failings that led to an ambassador and three other  Americans dying in such horrendous circumstances.

Why was the attack not anticipated by  intelligence sources? Why were warnings ignored that the mission building was  inadequate for its job?

Was the response from Washington on the night  in question bungled? What precisely did the President know and when? Or did he  sleep though the whole thing?

The questions seem even more pointed in the  light of allegations that the survivors have allegedly been silenced.

Under this continuing cloud of suspicion, the  damage caused by the insurgents in Benghazi that fearful night may sadly end up  running far deeper than even the most hardened jihadist fanatic could have  imagined.

UNDER FIRE by Fred Burton and Samuel Katz  is published by St Martin’s Press. © 2013 Fred Burton and Samuel Katz. Order a  copy via amazon.co.uk

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