In Libya, contingency plan seemed to go awry during attack on U.S. outpost
By Michael Birnbaum,
BENGHAZI, Libya — Amid the chaos of the attack on the U.S. mission in this coastal city last month, neither the militia charged with guarding the compound nor American diplomats appeared to follow plans for what to do under assault, according to Libyan officials and guards, as well as documents found in the wreckage.
In addition, at least three Libyan guards hired to defend the compound said in interviews that they had met with American officials to express concerns about lax security, and two said they had done so on Sept. 11, the day of the attack.
A directive, dated Sept. 9, two days before the attack, specified that members of the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, a Libyan militia, would call for backup from within their own ranks in case of attack, the documents show.
In practice, three Libyan officials said, the designated militia asked another ultraconservative Islamist militia to join in the response, and the fleeing Americans do not appear to have trusted those Libyan guards with details about their movements.
The directive and a year-old contingency plan for responding to an attack were found by a Washington Post reporter this week in the debris of the U.S. mission in Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in last month’s assault. The first step in the contingency plan called for securing the ambassador.
“Of course there were contingency plans drawn up for our personnel in Benghazi — that is the kind of prudent security planning that takes place at our missions worldwide,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. But he declined to comment about whether those plans were followed.
The attack and its aftermath have presented the Obama administration with a political challenge just weeks before the election. House Republicans have criticized the slow pace of an investigation and questioned whether warning signs were disregarded in the weeks and months before the attack.
For the first time since the onslaught, an FBI team accompanied by a “small footprint’’ of U.S. military personnel visited Benghazi, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. A spokesman for the Libyan Interior Ministry in eastern Libya, Ezzdeen Alfizany, said that the Americans spent less than five hours in the city, including about an hour at the ransacked U.S. mission, and visited a tatty bazaar called the “two dinar” market, apparently in search of items looted from the compound.
Also on Thursday, U.S. officials confirmed that two Tunisians with possible connections to the attack in Benghazi have been arrested by authorities in Istanbul. The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the pair may have been transiting Turkey when they were detained. The officials would not discuss the nature of the possible ties to the attack.
The Libyan guards interviewed by The Post had been hired by Blue Mountain, a British company employed under contract by the U.S. mission. The guards said their training had anticipated a small attack on a single entrance — not a large-scale assault by heavy weaponry from three sides.
At the time of the siege, the security force inside the compound included three armed militia members, four unarmed guards and a handful of armed American personnel, the guards said. One guard said he had told American officials on Sept. 11 that the single Libyan police car typically posted outside the compound was not sufficient.
“The same day as the attack, I told the American Embassy that the one car was not good to protect this mission. I said we need many cars from the military,” said the Blue Mountain guard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety.
A soot-soaked copy of a memorandum found in the looted security office shows that as late as Sept. 9, American security officials were working to “clarify the work requirements and expectations” of the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, the militia that had been tasked with securing the Americans since they established the mission in 2011.
The document, cast as a request, specified that in case of an attack the guards “will request additional support” from their militia’s nearby base. The guards did so during the Sept. 11 attack, according to Libyan security officials, guards who were present from the beginning and other members of the 17th February militia who were summoned within minutes.
But a second militia, Rafallah al-Sehati, that had not previously been involved in guarding the Americans, was also asked to provide assistance that night, a spokesman for the militia said. The group has been backed by the Libyan government and provides security in Benghazi, which has a minimally developed police force. But one of its leaders has described himself as a “jihadist,” and Rafallah al-Sehati officials said that weapons capable of taking down airplanes were stolen when their compound was overrun by protesters last month.
Jamal Aboshala, a spokesman for Rafallah al-Sehati, said the request came at 3 a.m. local time from Fawzi Bukhatif, the commander of the 17th February militia. He said that American officials had initially declined an offer of help, and were later reluctant to share with militia members the precise location of an annex to which they had retreated.
“Really, they mixed up. They didn’t know an enemy from a friend,” said Fawzi Wanis al-Gaddafi, the head of Benghazi’s Supreme Security Committee. “It was a messy night.”
The American protocols were posted on the wall in the former security office and scattered on the floor in the form of laminated index cards when a reporter entered the mission this week. The protocols were dated 2011 and appear to have been at least partly outdated. Among telephone numbers listed as emergency contacts to summon extra security support, one routed to a former commander who said he left the militia six months ago.
Among the items listed as priorities in the case of an emergency, the first was “secure principal officer,” or the ambassador. Stevens went missing in the blaze and had not been accounted for when the Americans evacuated to the annex, a step that was called for under the protocols.
Posted on the wall was a gloomy accounting of security incidents in Benghazi, detailing attacks, explosions and battles between June 1, 2011, and Sept. 2 of this year. Of the 38 incidents, 27 happened since July 26 of this year.
Abigail Hauslohner in Cairo, Ayman Alkekly in Benghazi, and Anne Gearan and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.