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Published: September 20, 2012
WASHINGTON — The survivors of the assault on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, thought they were safe. They had retreated to a villa not far from the main building where the surprise attack had occurred, and a State Department team had arrived to evacuate them. The eruption of violence had ended, and now they were surrounded by friendly Libyan brigades in what seemed to be a dark, uneasy calm.
A colleague’s body lay on the ground. They had no idea where their boss, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, was, nor how in the confusion he had become separated from his bodyguard and left behind.
Then, shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, just as they were assembling to be taken to the airport, gunfire erupted, followed by the thunderous blasts of falling mortar rounds. Two of the mission’s guards — Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, former members of the Navy SEALs — were killed just outside the villa’s front gate. A mortar round struck the roof of the building where the Americans had scrambled for cover.
The attackers had lain in wait, silently observing as the rescuers, including eight State Department civilians who had just landed at the airport in Benghazi, arrived in large convoys. This second attack was shorter in duration than the first, but more complex and sophisticated. It was an ambush.
“It was really accurate,” Fathi al-Obeidi, commander of special operations for a militia called Libyan Shield, who was there that night, said of the mortar fire. “The people who were shooting at us knew what they were doing.”
They also escaped, apparently uninjured.
Interviews with Libyan witnesses and American officials provide new details on the assault on American diplomatic facilities and the initial moblike attack, set off by a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, that transformed into what the Obama administration now, after initial hesitation, describes as a terrorist attack.
The accounts, which remain incomplete and contradictory, are broadly consistent with what is known about the attack, but they still leave many questions unanswered, including the identity of the attackers and how prepared they might have been to strike at an American target.
The attack has raised questions about the adequacy of security preparations at the two American compounds in Benghazi. Both were temporary homes in a dangerous, insecure city, and they were never intended to become permanent diplomatic missions with appropriate security features built into them.
Neither was heavily guarded, and the second house was never intended to be a “safe house,” as initial accounts suggested. At no point were the Marines or other American military personnel involved, contrary to news reports early on.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Thursday the creation of a review board led by a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state, Thomas R. Pickering. She also briefed lawmakers behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. But the State Department now faces Congressional demands for an independent investigation of the attacks and any security failures that might have added to the death toll.
“In my judgment, which is informed by numerous briefings and discussions with experts, the attack in Benghazi was not a black swan,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said at a hearing on Wednesday, “but rather an attack that should have been anticipated, based on the previous attacks against Western targets, the proliferation of dangerous weapons in Libya, the presence of Al Qaeda in that country and the overall threat environment.”
Investigators and intelligence officials are now focusing on the possibility that the attackers were affiliated with, or possibly members of, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — a branch that originated in Algeria — or at least in communication with it before or during the initial attack at the mission and the second one at the mission’s annex, a half-mile away.
One extremist now under scrutiny is a former detainee at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamouda, a Libyan who is a prominent member of an extremist group called Ansar al-Sharia, which some have blamed for the attack. “It is safe to assume that any significant extremist in eastern Libya is going to be under a lot of scrutiny right now,” an American intelligence official said, adding that it was premature to draw any conclusions.
The most significant inconsistency between Libyan and American accounts is whether the attack that night began with a small protest over the trailer of “The Innocence of Muslims,” parts of which were broadcast on Egyptian television. American officials insist there was a protest that began peacefully, only to be hijacked by armed militants. But Libyan witnesses, including two guards at the building, say the area around the compound was quiet until the attackers arrived, firing their weapons and storming the compound from three sides, beginning at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 11. A witness said that some of those attacking referred to the film’s insults to Islam.
Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday that the authorities believe “this was an opportunistic attack” that “evolved and escalated over several hours.”
What is clear, however, is that those who arrived at the mission — not officially a consulate, though Libyans call it that informally — came intending to inflict maximum damage on the building. They quickly overwhelmed a small security detail that included three guards from a force called the 17th of February Brigade and five Libyans employed by a British security company called Blue Mountain.
In a detail not previously disclosed, after storming the compound, the attackers poured diesel fuel around the exterior of the building where Mr. Stevens; a computer technician, Sean Smith; and a security officer had settled in for the night and ignited it. It is not clear if they knew anyone was inside.
By that time, according to officials, the three had moved into a part of the building designated as a “safe haven,” with fortified doors and no external exposure. The dense, billowing smoke from the fire, however, forced them to leave the haven and head for an exit. It was at that time that they became separated. The security guard, who has not been identified, made it out of the house, but Mr. Smith and Mr. Stevens did not. Both died of asphyxiation from the smoke.
The guard, now joined by others, found Mr. Smith’s body, but not the ambassador’s. By 11:20 p.m., nearly two hours after the shooting started, they retreated to the mission’s second compound, or annex, which had been rented after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government last year to provide additional space for a diplomatic team that now included roughly two dozen Americans in all.
It was only after they left that the fighting subsided and a crowd wandering through the compound discovered Mr. Stevens’s body and removed it through an exterior window, suggesting that he had left the designated haven inside but failed to find an exit. His body was taken to the hospital in Benghazi, where a doctor tried but failed to resuscitate him. The area around the hospital was under the control of a militia suspected of having extremist sympathies, and a video of Mr. Stevens’s corpse in the hospital’s morgue ultimately circulated to an extremist Web site, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a monitoring agency that tracks militants’ Internet postings.
By then, the State Department’s operations center, now aware of the attack in progress, set in motion a contingency plan drafted for emergencies. A civilian airliner contracted by the department and on standby at Tripoli’s airport flew to Benghazi, arriving at 1:30 a.m. with the eight additional security officers.
Mr. Obeidi, the commander with the Libya Shield brigade, was ordered to meet them at the airport, take them to the mission’s annex and escort them back to the airport to be evacuated. Mr. Obeidi expected to find only a few people inside and was surprised to find the entire staff from Benghazi, more than two dozen people. “They told me that there would only be a few, but I saw a big number,” he said.
When the second attack began, it lasted only five minutes, “but when you are in that situation, it feels like an hour,” he added.
The evacuation to the airport did not begin until dawn, but the plane could not carry everyone. It left behind 11 security officers and three bodies. Mr. Obeidi said that the commander of the local operations center, Mustapha Boshala, then ordered a unit to the hospital to retrieve Mr. Stevens’s body. Two hours later the State Department’s plane returned to carry the last Americans out of Benghazi.
In Tripoli on Thursday, Libya’s new government held a memorial service for the four Americans who died. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns attended. “If Chris were here this evening,” he said, referring to the ambassador, “I know he would be the first to say that for all the pride and jubilation of the revolution, for all the pain we feel tonight, it is the days ahead which matter most.”
Steven Lee Myers and Michael S. Schmidt reported from Washington, and Suliman Ali Zway from Benghazi, Libya. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.