As U.S. Africa Command waited for any order to rescue Americans on Sept. 11 at the besieged consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, it was missing a key unit that the Pentagon gives every regional four-star commander — an emergency strike force.
The new command’s lack of such a unit is another piece in the unfolding Benghazi timeline that shows an overriding theme: As radical Islamic extremism swelled in the chaotic coastal city, U.S. security assets in Libya diminished.
From the State Department’s denial of diplomats’ requests for more security in Libya to Obama administration officials repeatedly saying the military-style attack on the consulate resulted from “spontaneous” protests, the events before, during and after the Benghazi assault reflect the political, diplomatic and military confusion that is post-Gadhafi Libya.
Each U.S. geographic combatant command, whether it be in the Middle East, the Pacific or, in this case, Africa, is entitled to a special operations rapid-response team — a group of Green Berets to perform instant combat in situations like the Islamist militants’ attack on the U.S. Consulate.
But on that day, AfriCom, the Pentagon’s newest geographic combatant command, which is still in the building phase, lacked what is called the “commander in-extremis force,” said a senior special operations official.
“All geographic combatant commands have one allocated to them, except AfriCom,” the senior official said. “AfriCom’s is in the process of being established.”
The gap shows that while North Africa has become a growing battleground for Islamic extremists, the U.S. regional command in charge of operations there is still not at full strength.
“We cannot discuss the availability of specific capabilities in order to protect our operational security,” AfriCom spokesman Benjamin Benson said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, told Fox News that Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads AfriCom, received no request from any government entity to intervene in Benghazi during the seven- to eight-hour fight.
As it turns out, some special operations troops, likely from U.S. European Command, were moved to a naval air station at Sigonella, Sicily, but were never ordered to go farther. The Pentagon has declined to say exactly at what hour they arrived in Sicily or whether the battle was over by then.
Perhaps most important is not the lack of troops going into Benghazi, but what security forces the State Department pulled out of Libya a month before the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his information officer, and two former Navy SEALs.
Signs of trouble in Benghazi
The story begins last winter, when the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli began reporting to Washington about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi.
Mr. Stevens chose to spend much time there, the cradle of the popular uprising that ousted and ultimately killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
As pro-Western Libyans tried to form a fledgling democracy, al Qaeda-linked militant groups, as they have done in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, began emerging to exploit the power vacuum.
That winter, Col. Wood commanded a 16-member site security team of Army Green Berets based in Tripoli. His men were in country because they wielded the kind of high-caliber firepower needed to combat militants armed with grenade launchers and mortars.
“Superior weapons and superior tactics,” Col. Wood said. “That’s what the [site security team] brought to the table. Those were the qualities and attributes and the bolstering effect that they added.”
By June, the Benghazi compound consisted of one wall and four buildings, and was guarded by up to five of Mr. Nordstrom’s personnel, a few Libyan private security guards and the Libyan February 17 Martyrs Brigade, which lived in a compound barracks and worked out of a nearby CIA annex.
The embassy watched as militants stepped up attacks.
Radical Islamists attacked the International Red Cross building repeatedly. A terrorist placed a homemade bomb at the consulate wall. Even though Libyan guards saw him, his time-delayed explosive went off and blew a huge hole in the wall.
Next, terrorists attacked a convoy transporting the British ambassador. Britain quickly evacuated, leaving the U.S. as the only Western power in Benghazi.
“When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi,” Col. Wood said. “We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi.”
Security requests denied
But Charlene Lamb, who was in charge of international programs for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, rejected their requests. State wanted to create a picture of normal operations in Libya.
“We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon,” Ms. Lamb told the committee, noting that five diplomatic security officers were in Benghazi, the number that had been requested.
But further firepower was missing. On July 9, the embassy sent a cable to State seeking at least a 60-day extension for SST and other security personnel. It was denied.
Col. Wood said those men could have accompanied the ambassador in Benghazi or responded from Tripoli when the assault occurred.
Col. Wood said the State Department restricted officers on the mobile security team to training Libyans, not providing security. Still, their absence meant a smaller pool of security personnel able to respond to Benghazi.
Ms. Lamb testified that she “backfilled” to replace team members.
“I made the best decisions I could with the information I had,” she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this month.
Mr. Stevens, a career diplomat who considered his mission in Benghazi as bringing together various tribal factions and Islamic groups, had been reporting to State on increased violence.
In June, he wrote of “Islamic extremism” and al Qaeda flags popping up on government buildings in eastern Libya.
On Sept. 11, in what appears to be his last words to Washington, Mr. Stevens said Libyan security commanders “expressed growing frustration with police and security forces” unable to control Benghazi.
Ms. Lamb said the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi began at 9:40 p.m. local time, or 3:40 p.m. Washington time.
The first messages from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, which said the conflict had begun just after 9 p.m., reached Washington at 4:05 p.m. EDT, when the Pentagon, White House and State Department operation centers would have been fully staffed.
“The diplomatic mission is under attack,” said the embassy email, which was sent to the White House National Security Council office, as well as to the State Department. “The 17th of February militia is providing security support.”
Two hours later, the embassy reported that Ansar al-Shariah, an al Qaeda-linked militant group that also is backed by some Libyan government officials, claimed responsibility. That was a tip to Washington that this was a terrorist assault, not part of Muslim protests in the region over an American-produced anti-Islam video.
As it turned out, only three February 17 Martyrs Brigade members were at the consulate, along with five U.S. security officers. Outmatched, they proved unable to stop scores of militants storming through a gate, firing grenades and using diesel fuel to set fire to the compound.
Mr. Stevens sought safety in the living quarters, which became engulfed in flames.
A nearby CIA base, identified by the State Department as one of its annexes, sent a rescue team of martyrs brigade members and at least one former Navy SEAL, Tyrone Woods. They collected all the staff they could find amid fires and gunshots, and returned to the annex in armored cars — minus the ambassador, whose whereabouts was unknown.
Now close to midnight in Libya, the CIA officers sent urgent radio messages to headquarters in Langley asking for the military to send help, Fox News reported Friday. It said the CIA had ordered the officers not to attempt the rescue, but they went anyway.
No military help was sent.
An unmanned spy aircraft, whose video signal could be relayed to policymakers in Washington, buzzed overhead during part of the raid. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says a 50-minute recording exists, but it has not been provided to Congress.
At the White House during the attack, President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met in the Oval Office.
Seven hours later, a rescue contingent from Tripoli, with Libyan personnel, made its way from the airport to the annex, which then came under mortar fire.
Mr. Woods and fellow former SEAL Glen Doherty, whose job was to guard the CIA officers, had been killed.
The team learned that Mr. Stevens had been found dead, presumedly from smoke inhalation, and was taken to a hospital.
The new mission: Gather the living and dead, and escape to the airport.
After the attack
The next day, the Obama administration began blaming the attack on a “spontaneous” protest sparked by the anti-Muslim video.
That assertion apparently was based on an instant assessment by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversees the nation’s civilian and military spy agencies.
But that instant assessment was not unanimous.
The Defense Intelligence Agency on Sept. 12 briefed the Pentagon that the attack likely was carried out by Ansar al-Shariah, The Washington Times has reported. The Defense Intelligence Agency made no mention of protesters.
The Associated Press reported that the CIA station chief in Tripoli also blamed militants.
Mr. Panetta, in his first public remarks Thursday on why the U.S. military did not send in a combat rescue team, or use air power to strike the attacking militants during the seven- to eight-hour battle, said the military did not have sufficient intelligence.
“The basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place,” he said. “And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. [Martin] Dempsey, [Joint Chiefs chairman], and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”
Asked why the existence of a firefight at the Benghazi annex did not provide a clear picture, Mr. Panetta said: “This happened within a few hours, and it was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”
By Sept. 16, the national intelligence director changed his assessment. Mr. Clapper abandoned the “spontaneous” explanation and told the White House that the attack was a planned terrorist operation, a U.S. intelligence official told The Times.
“We were fighting a losing battle,” Col. Wood said. “We couldn’t even keep what we had. We were not even allowed to keep what we had.”
Mr. Nordstrom recalled a phone call with a regional director asking for 12 additional agents.
“His response to that was, ‘You’re asking for the sun, moon and the stars,’” the security officer said. “And my response to him, ‘You know what makes [this] the most frustrating about this assignment? It’s not the hardships. It’s not the gunfire. It’s not the threats. It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me.’
“And I ended it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building,” Mr. Nordstrom said.