Benghazi Then: Remembering Our Dead

They came in the dark of night. Nothing more than killers hiding behind their own warped veil of religion, they were – are – butchers committing heinous acts for love of terror. On September 11, 2012, they stormed the United States diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

In the aftermath, the White House did its level best placing blame on the most asinine occurrence: the Youtube trailer for Innocence of Muslims. The onslaught was labeled “spontaneous” and Libya branded awash with firearms, an over-abundance of weaponry that led to a protest gone awry. Meanwhile, families mourned the deaths of loved ones, men left to their demise in an act that can only be chalked up in one of two ways: willful nescience or wretched intelligence.

The Blackest of Nights

(All times Benghazi local unless otherwise noted.)

Behghazi CompoundThe Benghazi diplomatic post, known as the Special Mission Compound (SMC), was a walled area of 300 yards by 100 yards. There were four buildings inside: a guard house (“friendly” Libyan militia quarters) by the main gate, the main building, the U.S. security officer quarters beside it, and Tactical Operations Command behind U.S. quarters.

7 AM: A Libyan police officer slated to guard the SMC was seen on a neighboring rooftop videotaping the SMC. When challenged, he ran, and wasn’t seen again. Hours later, an unmarked car circled the post’s outer walls for some time before driving off.

9:30 PM: At the Venezia, an upscale restaurant across from the SMC, diners had ringside seats. Patrons reported seeing armed men arrive in militia jeeps, at least one of which bore the emblem of Ansar al-Sharia. Many wore tunics, some had covered their faces; still others wore flak jackets. Weapons included RPGs, hand grenades, and an assortment of rifles, including AK-47’s and FN F2000 NATO ARs. Men drinking coffee watched trucks filled to overflowing with armed militants approach the SMC. Others saw militants in 4x4s block off roads leading to and from the compound, several marked with the Ansar al-Sharia emblem or decorated with flags designating them as members of the terrorist group.

9:40 PM: The attackers at the rear gate waited as their cohorts tossed grenades over the wall near the main gate. One witness said he saw a Libyan guard open the rear gate after the first booms resonated and claims the armed militants yelled at the guard to get back inside. Moments later, they opened fire.

At the front, militants gained entry by pointing their firearms at the unarmed Blue Mountain Group (BMG) guards. Faced with loaded weapons and a violent group of men, the hapless guards let them in, but did raise an alarm. Some scaled the walls; regardless of method, one thing was sure: by 9:42 PM, they were in.

5 men from the diplomatic security service (DSS) were present, along with 3 armed “friendly” 17th February Brigade militiamen and 5 unarmed Libyan guards from BMG. 4 DSS agents were with Ambassador Stevens in the main building. Three had left their rifles in the accommodation block. And so, 1 armed DSS agent led Ambassador Stevens and FSO Smith into the main building’s safe room while the others sprinted across the compound for weapons. After retrieving their gear, their path was blocked, forcing them to retreat to the barracks and TOC, leaving lone DSS agent Scott Strickland to protect Ambassador Stevens and FSO Smith.

As the men sought refuge in the main building, Stevens sent a plea to Gregory Hicks, the American deputy ambassador in Tripoli: “We’re under attack.” FSO Smith sent a message in real time to an online gaming friend: “F*ck. Gunfire.” In addition, a security officer sent a frantic message to the CIA post he knew was 1 mile away and housed former elite forces: “We’re under attack. Please send help now.” These messages, and countless others, were sent within minutes of the first shots.

Then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was informed the SMC was under siege immediately after the assault began, right before 4pm Washington, D.C., time.

Alerts were sent throughout the upper echelons of government and the intelligence community. Among those alerted were the office of Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, and the White House Situation Room.

The U.S. military sent an unarmed drone to collect real-time information, which could be relayed to the CIA post near the SMC. The footage recorded by the first drone and the subsequent drone sent to replace it were capable of transmitting literally everywhere, military and government.

Cross Border Authority

Only an order from the President of the United States of America can initiate a military operation on foreign ground such as Benghazi. The President must give the order; the lives of every American in Benghazi were in the hands of Barack Obama. The military buck quite literally stopped, started, and gained all life from him.

“Assuming we don’t die tonight.” (FSO Sean Smith to an online friend as the assault began.)

The intruders gained entry with an RPG, blasting into the lintel above the front doors. Strickland was forced to lead Ambassador Stevens and FSO Sean Smith into the safe room almost immediately. When the militants realized they couldn’t gain entrance, they began dragging furniture outside and dumping it into the pool, heading unerringly to the generators – which weren’t working – for jerry cans of fuel. They drenched the carpets and walls with fuel, creating an eye-searing, throat-clogging rush of diesel fumes even as they set the area outside the safe room ablaze.

The attack at the American Mission on Sept. 11, 2012. Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
The attack at the American Mission on Sept. 11, 2012. Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

Asphyxiation by fire is a horrific way to die. Fire thrives on oxygen, so for Ambassador Stevens and FSO Smith, the very air they breathed, thick with smoke and flames, leached life from their lungs. Toxic diesel fumes filled their reality like a cloying, deadly cloak, the heavy smoke replacing the oxygen their lungs struggled to inhale. As black smoke filled their lungs, their hearts beat a rapid tattoo, desperate to pump oxygen-rich blood through their bodies. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide built as their lungs could no longer expel the deadly molecules. At first, the men would cough, fighting for air. Next, shortness of breath, dizziness, and vomiting as toxicity overcame them. Needles of pain would rush through them as their faces and extremities went cold with oxygen deprivation, simultaneously burning up from oppressive heat – it’s not a painless death. The entire process can take 30 seconds or several minutes of endless torture. Anyone claiming Ambassador Stevens and FSO Smith didn’t die horribly doesn’t know that of which they speak.

DSS agent Strickland attempted to save them, first having them lie on the floor of the safe house bathroom. Finally, seeing no option, he broke through an emergency hatch. Neither man followed. Realizing he was alone, Strickland moved back and forth, taking enemy fire when he exited for fresh air and inhaling vast quantities of noxious smoke during rescue attempts. At some point, he radioed for help.

The other DSS agents found Strickland, vomiting and suffering from severe smoke inhalation, still trying to rescue Stevens and Smith. They took turns entering the safe room until all suffered the ill effects of smoke inhalation. Smith’s lifeless form was finally pulled from the structure when a few more men arrived (see below), but they couldn’t locate Stevens.

Locals had taken Stevens and an injured Libyan guard – the same man who left the infamous bloodied handprint on the gate – to Benghazi Medical Centre. The hospital director, Dr. Fathi al-Jerami, said he was shocked to see Stevens arrive without a single American in sight. The guard insisted the unconscious (or dead) American was Stevens; staff spent 90 minutes attempting resuscitation. They failed.

FSO Sean Smith and U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens were dead.

“Ready to Lead, Ready to Follow, Never Quit” – U.S. Navy SEALs

1.2 miles from the SMC, the CIA had a hidden station. The four-building compound has been referred to as an “annex” in the mainstream media; that is inaccurate. The CIA post was separate from the SMC and housed dozens of men; they were a little-known entity. They were close enough to hear the resonance of grenades and the susurrus of firearms as the assault began.

Within 25 minutes of the initial attack, a quick reaction force (QRF) of three to six men (most likely, three), had been mustered. Leading the QRF was former SEAL Tyrone Woods. Woods was a member of the CIA post’s Global Response Staff (GRS). When Woods heard the opening volleys of the attack on the SMC, he approached the powers-that-be. He was flatly ordered to stand down not once but twice; he wasn’t listening. He refused to leave men in need when he could fight.

Woods and his men armed themselves and headed out, quickly coming under fire. The attackers had set up roadblocks, but they made it to the SMC. With them were 40 members of the 17th February Brigade, a Libyan militia. When it came to it, the 17th February men did next to nothing, saying they were unable to fight.

With the arrival of Woods’ QRF, the day appeared to be saved. For 90 minutes, the QRF fought. Sean Smith’s body was loaded into an armored vehicle and survivors piled in, heading to the CIA post en masse. The now-combined forces of DSS agents and the GRS QRF were small but fierce and fought their way back to the CIA compound; according to accounts, two tires on one vehicle were blown out by hand grenades, and they continued.

Tango Mike-Mike

When the men reached the CIA post, they were taking fire from RPGs and small arms. There was no real gap in the assault; it simply bled onto the secondary location. Fighting continued for an hour before coming to an unexplainable halt.

As fighting paused, a flight arrived from Tripoli with reinforcements: former SEAL and current GRS officer Glen Doherty, three other GRS officers, a CIA case officer, and two U.S. military personnel. According to sources, Doherty and the other men paid USD $30,000 bribing a commercial jet to fly them to Benghazi. The men were delayed until 4:30 AM by Libyan officials arguing about their presence; they also had to secure transportation and form a mission plan. Coincidentally, while they argued their way out of the airport, the lull in fighting just happened to last from the time they landed to just after they arrived at the CIA post at 5:04 AM.

Glen Doherty became a SEAL in 1995 and was a responder to the USS Cole in 2000; after years of service he needed a knee reconstruction. Then September 11, 2001, happened, and he stayed in. Through two tours in combat, he showed courage and heart. That heart led him to join fellow former SEAL Tyrone Woods on the rooftop of one of the CIA buildings around 5:15 AM, September 12, 2012.

The interior of the burnt US consulate building on September 13, 2012 following the attacks. (AFP Photo/Gianluigi Guercia)
The interior of the burnt US consulate building on September 13, 2012 following the attacks. (AFP Photo/Gianluigi Guercia)

Cleary outgunned, the two SEALs – for that is what they were, and will always be – fought side-by-side. The Islamic militants had rifles, grenades, RPGs, heavy machine guns, mortars, and even more artillery mounted on trucks. The SEALs-now-CIA-assets had Mark 48 Mod O lightweight machine guns equipped with visible and passive lasers. Despite reports to the contrary, they had Ground Laser Designators (GLD), markers used to pinpoint aerial strikes for air support. GLD was used by both men to mark targets for the air strikes they repeatedly called to request. Remember Cross Border Authority? The president has to authorize assistance. He did not.

Numerous accounts of their final moments spread, and one detail is constant: their heroism. Numbers given vary from dozens to sixty to one hundred, but there is no doubt they took out a staggering number of militants. Both men were wounded, bleeding, and in pain, and fought. When mortars fell, and there was no sign of help being authorized by the President, they were probably aware these were their final moments.

Tyrone Woods made one final plea. There were AC-130H Spectre gunships waiting for authorization; the go-ahead never came. A Special Forces team standing by in Tripoli, waiting for the green light, did just that: stood by. One hour’s flight time from Benghazi, the U.S. Souda Bay Naval Base awaited a signal that never came. And the list of those waiting goes on.

Within minutes of the fighting’s resurgence at 5:15am, the mortars fell. The first one fell short. Reports say the next mortar struck Woods. Doherty rushed to save his friend’s life, and another mortar removed him from this reality.

Over 7 hours had passed since the assaults began. Our men were dead. Killed battling against a swelling force of organized militants, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty made the ultimate sacrifice. US Ambassador Chris Stevens and FSO Sean Smith were also dead, murdered by the horrific method of smoke asphyxia.

In Washington, D.C., the President slept. As the morning light dawned in the nation’s capital, he boarded a flight to Las Vegas, Nevada, for a fundraiser. And a world away in Benghazi, our fallen grew cold, requests denied.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of this website. This author accepts all responsibility for the opinions and viewpoints in this article.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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