A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience, in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment.
Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.
The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.
Sept. 9, 2012, 2 DAYS BEFORE THE ATTACK.
Gathered on folding chairs in a banquet hall by the Mediterranean, the Libyans warned of rising threats against Americans from extremists in Benghazi. One militia leader, with a long beard and mismatched military fatigues, mentioned time in exile in Afghanistan. An American guard discreetly touched his gun.“Since Benghazi isn’t safe, it is better for you to leave now,” , the leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade, later recalled telling the Americans. “I specifically told the Americans myself that we hoped that they would leave Benghazi as soon as possible.”
By 7 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, guards at the American Mission had spotted a man taking photographs with a cellphone on the second floor of an unfinished building next to the Venezia Restaurant across the street, according to interviews with the compound’s Libyan guards as well as the State Department report.
When the guards approached, the photographer fled in a police car with two others, all in the uniforms of a quasi-official militia known as the Supreme Security Committee. Fawzi Wanis, a former commander of the group, said he suspected that the men were doing reconnaissance for someone else.
“We had all kinds in the Supreme Security Committee, from Islamist extremists to drunks,” Mr. Wanis said.
In his diary [THAT DAY], Mr. Stevens wrote, “Never ending security threats…”>>
Around dusk, the Pan-Arab satellite networks began broadcasting footage of protesters breaching the walls of the American Embassy in Cairo, pulling down the American flag and running up the black banner of militant Islam. Young men around Benghazi began calling one another with the news, several said, and many learned of the video for the first time.
Mr. Stevens, who spent the day in the compound for security reasons because of the Sept. 11 anniversary, learned about the breach in a phone call from the American Embassy in Tripoli. Then a diplomatic security officer at the Benghazi mission called to tell the C.I.A. team.
But as late as 6:40 p.m., Mr. Stevens appeared cheerful when he welcomed the Turkish consul, Ali Akin, for a visit.
There was even less security at the compound than usual, Mr. Akin said. No armed American guards met him at the gate, only a few unarmed Libyans. “No security men, no diplomats, nobody,” he said. “There was no deterrence.”
At 8:30 p.m., British diplomats dropped off their vehicles and weapons before flying back to Tripoli.
At 9:42 p.m., according to American officials who have viewed the security camera footage, a police vehicle stationed outside turned on its ignition and drove slowly away.
A moment later a solitary figure strolled by the main gate, kicking pebbles and looking around — a final once-over, according to the officials.
9:42 P.M. http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/video/multimedia/bundles/projects/2013/Benghazi/step5_504.webm
Attackers storm through the main gate and set barracks and cars on fire. Mr. Stevens, Mr. Smith and a security officer in the main villa lock themselves in a safe room. Attackers set the main villa’s living room on fire. They bang at the safe room’s door, but do not enter.
Three American armed officers outside the main villa rush to retrieve rifles, radios and bulletproof vests in the security quarters. Two of them try to return to the villa, but find the alley between the two buildings overtaken by attackers. Outnumbered and outgunned, they barricade themselves in the security quarters.
As the main villa is engulfed in smoke, the security officer tries to guide Mr. Stevens and Mr. Smith outside through a window. The officer leaves, but the two men do not follow. The officer re-enters the building multiple times, but is unable to find the two men.
10:05 P.M. , ONLY 23 MINUTES AFTER THE ATTACK BEGAN, BUT TOO LATE TO SAVE THOSE AT THE COMPOUND...
A C.I.A. team leaves the Annex in two vehicles, trying and failing to get help from militia members it finds along the way. It takes enemy fire as it approaches the mission.
The Annex team rescues the officer in the monitoring office and joins the search for the two missing Americans. They find Mr. Smith in the main villa, dead from smoke inhalation, but RHEY DID NOT FIND THE AMBASSADOR [REMEMBER THIS... not the ambassador!] .
Cellphone video posted online shows Mr. Stevens's body being recovered later by a LIBYAN crowd from a window near the villa's entrance.
[IF STEVENS' BODY WAS FOUND BY LIBYANS INSIDE THE VILLA, QHY DID THE CIA FAIL TO FIND HIM THERE?]
There is no doubt that anger over the video motivated many attackers.
A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him.
Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.
The attack began with just a few dozen fighters, according to those officials. The invaders fired their Kalashnikovs at the lights around the gate and broke through with ease.
Reports from the scene ricocheted around the city in frantic phone calls telling competing stories.
Abu Baker Habib, a Libyan-American friend of Mr. Stevens, began calling for help from a handful of the most important militia leaders, like and .
But a false report spread much wider and faster: that guards in the compound had shot and wounded Libyans who had come only to protest.
“They told each other that the Americans had killed a Libyan,” Mr. Gharabi said. “For that reason, everybody would go.”
Mr. Gharabi, who was at a friend’s wedding a hundred miles away, knew that some of his fighters would join the attack, so he sent a delegation of “wise men” to deter them, he said. of the February 17 Brigade was in Tripoli that night but said in an interview that he also believed some of his men had participated.
Soon scores, if not hundreds, of others were racing to the scene. Some arrived with guns, some with cameras. The attackers had posted sentries at Venezia Road, adjacent to the compound, to guard their rear flank, but they let pass anyone trying to join the mayhem. Witnesses said young men rushing inside had left empty pickup trucks from Ansar al-Shariah, but also all the other big militias ostensibly allied with the government.
Witnesses at the scene of the attack identified many participants associated with Ansar al-Shariah.
Mr. Abu Khattala’s presence and leadership were evident.
He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as “sheikh” and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound.
A local Benghazi official named Anwar el-Dos arrived on the scene and identified Mr. Abu Khattala as directing the fighters, people present said. Then Mr. Dos approached Mr. Abu Khattala for help entering the compound.
The two drove into the mission in Mr. Abu Khattala’s pickup truck, the witnesses said. As he moved forward, the fighters parted to let them pass.
, in an interview, recounted meeting Mr. Dos that night. Mr. Dos declined to comment. When the truck doors opened inside the compound, witnesses said, Mr. Dos dived to the ground to avoid gunfire that was ringing all around. But Mr. Abu Khattala strolled coolly through the chaos.
“He was just calm as could be,” a young Islamist who had joined the pillaging said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Around 11:30 p.m., Mr. Abu Khattala showed up on internal security cameras, according to officials who have viewed the footage.
Witnesses described utter bedlam inside. Men looted suits of clothes and carried them out on their hangers. They lugged out televisions. Some emerged from buildings clutching food they had found, and one poured what appeared to be Hershey’s chocolate syrup into his mouth. Others squabbled over trophies as small as a coil of rope left on the ground.
11:30 P.M., 2 HOURS AND 12 MINUTES AFTER THE ATTACK BEGAN:
The five security agents originally in the mission leave the compound in an armored vehicle and come under attack. They manage to escape, but are followed to the Annex.
Back at the main villa, Americans are attacked again. The team is unable to find the ambassador and retreats to the Annex carrying Mr. Smith’s body.
Shortly after they reach the Annex, the compound is attacked with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, intermittently, for an hour.
Libyan militia leaders who might have intervened to help the Americans washed their hands of the attack.
At the militias’ so-called joint operations room inside the February 17 Brigade headquarters, the commander in charge was Mr. Bargathi of the militia called the Preventive Security Brigade. He had also been a friend and neighbor of since childhood.
He said he immediately radioed the Libyan guards in the compound and told them not to resist the assault. “I told them: ‘Don’t shoot. Just run away from the place,' ” he said. “Because I knew that it was not wise to provoke. These are not like normal attackers, and it might enrage them more. They might kill everyone inside.”
He volunteered that the leaders of Ansar al-Shariah had joined him in the operations room shortly after the attack began — underscoring the permeability of the line between threat and protector among Benghazi militias.
Of all the major militias in the city, Libya Shield was the best positioned to intervene. It was arguably the most formidable in the country at the time, and its leader, received an urgent call from the ambassador’s friend Mr. Habib asking for help. Mr. Bin Hamid arrived at the scene within 30 minutes after the attack began, he said in an interview.
“The situation wasn’t suitable for me to go inside the compound,” Mr. Bin Hamid said. “And when the shooting stopped, we thought the Americans had been evacuated.”
At one point, a fighter asked Mr. Abu Khattala what to do with the remains of the compound. “Flatten it,” he said.
Later, Mr. Abu Khattala appeared to prepare for another phase of the attack. One young fighter with him told another to “cleanse ourselves for another battle” — an apparent reference to a subsequent attack on the C.I.A. Annex.
That phase appears to have been improvised that night.
Back in Tripoli, American diplomats scrambled to make sense of the news out of Benghazi. Many learned of Ansar al-Shariah’s existence from social media during the attack. They sent seven security officers to Benghazi in a borrowed Libyan cargo jet.
Sept. 12, 2012
A seven-person American team from Tripoli arrives in Benghazi on a Libyan cargo jet, but struggles to negotiate an escort out of the airport.
Embassy officials had arranged for the team to be met by Fathi al-Obeidi, a trusted lieutenant of of Libya Shield. But when the jet landed around 1 a.m., seemingly every commander in Benghazi was competing for the honor of escorting the Americans, even those who did nothing to stop the attack, including Mr. Bin Hamid himself.
A group from the Preventive Security Brigade, led that night by old friend Mr. Bargathi, insisted on coming, and held the team up for hours on the tarmac, Mr. Obeidi said.
The response team FINALLY arrives at the Annex, accompanied by a convoy of about a dozen Libyan militia trucks.
IT HAS NOW BEEN ALMOST 8 HOURS SINCE THE INITIAL ATTACK.
Minutes later, the Annex is attacked again. Three mortar rounds hit one of the buildings, killing the security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Two other officers are also wounded.
Almost all of the Libyan fighters who had insisted on accompanying the Americans from the airport fled immediately.
Americans leave for the airport with support from a Libyan militia. One hour later, part of the staff leaves Benghazi on a chartered jet.
Mr. Stevens’s body arrives at the Benghazi airport in an ambulance. Hours earlier, about 1 a.m., some of the compound’s invaders found him in the main villa and took him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, apparently from smoke inhalation.
A second flight lands in Tripoli, with the remaining staff and the bodies of the four Americans.
In the days after the Benghazi attack, meanwhile, was still at work on construction sites and moving at ease around the city, even mocking the American political debate about the ambassador’s death. “It is always the same two teams, but all that changes is the ball,” he said in an interview. “They are just laughing at their own people.”
While almost everyone else in Benghazi mourned Mr. Stevens as a friend of the revolution, Mr. Abu Khattala was unmoved by his death. “I did not know him,” he said coolly.
And he suggested that the video insulting the Prophet Muhammad might well have justified the killing of four Americans. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.
But as American investigators focused on Mr. Abu Khattala in the following weeks, other militia leaders closed ranks with him.
Mr. Bargathi and offered alibis for him, contradicting many witnesses. Mr. Bargathi said that he had received a call from Mr. Abu Khattala after the attack had begun and that Mr. Abu Khattala had seemed surprised by the news.
Told that had given his name as a corroborating witness, Mr. Bin Hamid said they had stood together outside the compound because it seemed too dangerous to enter.
In an interview last spring, Mr. Bin Hamid said he had decided to make Mr. Abu Khattala a kind of local real estate judge, putting him in charge of settling disputes over property deeds.
“That made him happy,” said. “He is good at this. He is a sincere person. People respect him.”
Other Benghazi Islamists insist, bizarrely and without evidence, that they suspect the C.I.A. killed the ambassador.
The leaders of Ansar al-Shariah, the hard-line Islamist group allied with Mr. Abu Khattala, declared in a statement read on television the morning after the attack that they had not participated in it. But they lauded the assault as a just response to the video. They, too, insisted that a “peaceful protest” had “escalated as a result of shooting that came from the consulate, which led to the ambassador’s death by suffocation.”
By last summer, United States investigators had interviewed hundreds of witnesses and formally asked the Libyan government to arrest , along with about a dozen others wanted for questioning.
The United States military also prepared a plan to capture him on its own, pending presidential approval, officials said.
But the administration held back, fearing that unilateral United States military action could set off a backlash that would undermine the fragile Libyan government.
Hearing rumors that a revenge-seeking mob was threatening to come after Mr. Abu Khattala this fall, dozens of his neighbors sprang to his defense in scenes reminiscent of Venezia Road on the night of the mission attack. Fighters raced to erect checkpoints on the roads around his house, and they pulled out Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers, truck-mounted artillery and even a tank. Some drove government-issued pickups.
said that Libya’s prime minister, under pressure from the Americans, had asked a Benghazi army commander for help apprehending Mr. Abu Khattala.
Mr. Gharabi quoted the commander as replying, “You will be lucky if he does not apprehend you.”
WHO WAS J. CHRISTOPHER STEVENS?
Stevens always saw the best in Libya. He had gladly accepted the role of American liaison to the rebels at the start of the uprising. And in April 2011 he chose to sail into Benghazi on a Greek cargo ship instead of taking the easier land route from Egypt, just to savor the romance of his arrival in a free Libya.
<<Security vacuum,” Ambassador Stevens wrote in his personal diary on Sept. 6 in Tripoli, in one of the few pages recovered from the Benghazi compound.
“Militias are power on the ground,” he wrote. “Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate,” he continued. “Islamist ‘hit list’ in Benghazi. Me targeted on a prominent website (no more off compound jogging).” A map of his Tripoli jogging route had appeared on the Internet, seemingly inviting attacks, diplomats said.
But when he arrived from Tripoli for a visit, he was glad to be back in Benghazi. “Much stronger emotional connection to this place,” he wrote in his diary on Sept. 10, “the people but also the smaller town feel and the moist air and green and spacious compound.”
An experienced Arabist with previous postings in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Stevens, then 52, was among the most influential voices in American policy toward Libya. He helped shape the Obama administration’s conviction that it could work with the rebels, even those previously hostile to the West, to build a friendly, democratic government.
Still, Stevens and other Americans also knew that Benghazi had a history of violence against Western diplomats.
In 1967, a United States Consulate there was ransacked and burned by a mob angry about American support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli war.
In 2006, a mob burned down the Italian Consulate because a cabinet minister in Rome had worn a T-shirt mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
By the summer of 2012, a new pattern of hit-and-run attacks against Western interests was emerging. There were three separate attacks in Benghazi involving small explosives that locals used for fishing, two on the American compound and a third near a United Nations convoy.
After a rocket-propelled grenade seriously wounded a guard in the British ambassador’s convoy, the British began limiting their presence in Benghazi to day trips, depositing their vehicles and weapons inside the American compound at night before flying back to Tripoli, the capital.
But the Americans remained optimistic. Taking stock of the deteriorating security situation on Aug. 8, 2012, a cable titled “The Guns of August” and signed by Mr. Stevens struck an understanding tone about the absence of effective policing.
The cable was a last token of months of American misunderstandings and misperceptions about Libya and especially Benghazi, many fostered by shadows of the earlier Sept. 11 attack. The United States waded deeply into post-Qaddafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda. It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies.
The Americans had reason to feel secure: the team of at least 20 people from the Central Intelligence Agency operating out of an unmarked Benghazi compound known as “the Annex” that was about a half-mile southeast of the mission.
Some were highly skilled commandos.
“I knew the backup guys at the Annex, who were quite heavily trained and equipped,” said an Obama administration official who visited in the months before the attack.
In addition to buying up weapons spilled out during the revolt, the team was assigned to gather intelligence about anti-Western terrorists and the big militia leaders. But there were hundreds of small brigades, affiliations were fluid and overlapping, and the agents often found themselves turning to Mr. Stevens for advice because he seemed to know the militia leaders better than any other American expert.
Despite his expertise and the C.I.A.'s presence, though, “there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests,” a State Department investigation into the mission attack later concluded.
Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned , a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden.
Mr. Qumu had been apprehended in Pakistan in 2001 and detained for six years at Guantánamo Bay before returning home to Derna, a coastal city near Benghazi that was known for a high concentration of Islamist extremists.
But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.
“We heard a lot about ,” said one American diplomat in Libya at the time. “I don’t know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah.”
At least one Islamist militia leader liked to play basketball at the British compound. of the February 17 Brigade was a fluent English speaker who visited the American compound in Benghazi so often that “it was like he was my best friend,” one diplomat joked.
“We thought we were sufficiently close to them,” said one Western diplomat who was in Benghazi not long before the attack. “We all thought that if anything threatening was happening, that they would tip us off.”
Innocence of Muslims” purported to be an online trailer for a film about the mistreatment of Christians in contemporary Egypt. But it included bawdy historical flashbacks that derided the Prophet Muhammad. Someone dubbed it into Arabic around the beginning of September 2012, and a Cairo newspaper embellished the news by reporting that a Florida pastor infamous for burning the Quran was planning to debut the film on the 11th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Then, on Sept. 8, a popular Islamist preacher lit the fuse by screening a clip of the video on the ultraconservative Egyptian satellite channel El Nas.
American diplomats in Cairo raised the alarm in Washington about a growing backlash, including calls for a protest outside their embassy.
No one mentioned it to the American diplomats in Libya. But Islamists in Benghazi were watching. Egyptian satellite networks like El Nas and El Rahma were widely available in Benghazi. “It is Friday morning viewing,” popular on the day of prayer, said one young Benghazi Islamist who turned up at the compound during the attack, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Hussein Abu Hamida, the acting chief of Benghazi’s informal police force, saw the growing furor and feared new violence against Western interests.
He conferred with Abdul Salam Bargathi of the Preventive Security Brigade, an Islamist militia with a grandiose name, each recalled separately, and they increased security outside a United Nations office.
But they said nothing to the Americans.
Reports of the video were just beginning to spread on Sept. 9 when Mr. McFarland, then the officer normally in charge of politics and economics at the United States Embassy in Tripoli, had his meeting with the Benghazi militia leaders. Among them were some of the same men who had greeted Mr. Stevens when he arrived in Benghazi at the start of the revolt, including , 39, a heavyset former Abu Salim inmate who ran a local sandwich truck before becoming the leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati.
Another was , also 39, a slim and slightly hunched mechanic known for his skill with American cars who by then had become the leader of Libya Shield, considered one of the strongest militias in Libya.
“Innocence of Muslims,” a video offensive to Islam. (Agence France-Presse – Getty Images)]
In an interview, said that he had known about the building rage in Egypt over the video, but that, “We did not know if it was going to reach us here.”
Mr. McFarland seemed most concerned about the big militia leaders. “'How do the revolutionaries feel about having relationships with Western countries? What is your opinion about the United States?'” the Americans asked, according to Mr. Gharabi. It was “an interrogation,” he said.
“We told them that we hoped that the countries which helped us during the war would now help us in development,” he said. “And America was at the top of the pyramid.”
But and two other Libyan militia leaders present said separately that they tried to warn Mr. McFarland. “We told them, ‘Weapons are everywhere, in every home, and there is no real control,' ” of Libya Shield said.
Mr. McFarland struggled to make sense of their contradictory signals. “The message was, ‘Don’t come here because there is no security, but come right away because we need you,' ” Mr. McFarland later told colleagues.
The militia leaders seemed unable to get their stories straight, his colleagues said, and the vague warnings amounted to a reminder of what the diplomats already knew: Post-revolutionary Benghazi was a dangerous place.
Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.
One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.
The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.
Anger at the video motivated the initial attack.
Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters. Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras.
The Benghazi-based C.I.A. team had briefed Mr. McFarland and Mr. Stevens as recently as the day before the attack.
But the American intelligence efforts in Libya concentrated on the agendas of the biggest militia leaders and the handful of Libyans with suspected ties to Al Qaeda, several officials who received the briefings said.
Like virtually all briefings over that period, the one that day made no mention of , Ansar al-Shariah or the video ridiculing Islam, even though Egyptian satellite television networks popular in Benghazi were already spewing outrage against it.
Members of the local militia groups that the Americans called on for help proved unreliable, even hostile. The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats. Those now look like intelligence failures.
More broadly, Mr. Stevens, like his bosses in Washington, believed that the United States could turn a critical mass of the fighters it helped oust Colonel Qaddafi into reliable friends.
He died trying.