Two years ago Sunday, 15 insurgents crept onto one of the largest coalition military bases in Afghanistan, penetrating its external perimeter and launching a fierce attack with grenades, machine guns and other weapons. The toll was significant: Two Marines were killed, 17 other coalition members were wounded and nine aircraft were either destroyed or severely damaged.
Only one of the armed attackers involved in that Sept. 14, 2012, attack on Camp Bastion survived, military officials said. Mohammed Nazeer, now 24, was convicted and sentenced to death by an Afghan court, said Maj. John Caldwell, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon. But it still isn’t certain the punishment will stand. An Afghan appellate court affirmed the death penalty July 6, but the case is now before the Afghan Supreme Court for additional review, Caldwell said.
The uncertainty has frustrated the families of the two Marines killed, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, 40, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, 27, said Deborah Hatheway, Atwell’s aunt. U.S. military officials in Afghanistan contacted them last year asking for victim impact statements and family photographs to help make the case to the Afghan court that the insurgent should be punished severely for his actions, she said. The families were not informed there was an appellate process until this week, and are concerned it will function more leniently than the U.S. version.
“We’re grieving,” Hatheway said. “We lost a loved one, and we want answers and respect from the military.”
The surviving insurgent was wounded in a firefight with coalition forces on the base and captured. The results of a U.S. Central Command investigation released last October said Nazeer told investigators he was recruited to carry out an unknown “big mission” about four months before the attack by a Taliban commander.
Nazeer was in charge of a group of militants during the attack who planned to kill as many coalition members as possible while they were sleeping, he said during interrogation. He received training in Pakistan on weapons handling, communications and maneuvering as part of a military unit. He knew the other attackers came from Afghanistan or Pakistan, but did not know them before training for the mission, he said.
A day before the attack, the militants moved in civilian clothing across the border into Afghanistan in groups of two and met in Kandahar City, Nazeer told military investigators. They were transported by a truck to a safe house about an hour from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, and most likely prepared the attack in one of the small villages that had sprung up along the eastern side of the base.
It was no small target: Bastion is run by British forces, and was part of a 36-square mile compound that also included Camp Leatherneck, the major Marine Corps installation in Afghanistan, and Camp Shorabak, an Afghan training base. Bastion also serves as the home to a number of Marine Corps aviation units.
At about 10 p.m. Sept. 14, 2012, the insurgents breached the 30-foot high chain link fence at Camp Bastion and launched their attack. Wearing U.S. Army uniforms, they split into three teams of five men, beginning a battle that stretched for hours. Nazeer later told investigators that they worked from information that came from an unknown source or sources inside the military complex.
The first group of attackers planned to destroy the jets on the Bastion runway and their hangars, Nazeer said. The second group planned to target helicopters, while Nazeer’s group was to kill inhabitants in tents across the airfield, using both weapons and spray paint cans with cigarette lighters to start fires. The majority of the aircraft were destroyed with Soviet-made F1 hand grenades that were tossed or rolled underneath the planes, the investigation found.
Hundreds of service members on based scrambled by ground and helicopter to repel the attack, including Raible. The commander of a Harrier squadron, he was killed after midnight after launching a counterattack on a group insurgents. He was known as a methodical pilot who had become a squadron commander the first time he was reviewed for the position. He was reviewed for the Silver Star, a top valor award, Marine officials told this reporter for Marine Corps Times in 2012. He ultimately received the Bronze star with “V,” his family said. It’s another well regarded award that is one level lower.
Atwell also was killed early Sept. 15, 2012, by a rocket-propelled grenade blast on another part of the base, Marines on Camp Bastion said. He was a member of an aviation logistics squadron on base, and known by friends and family as a frequent jokester
The uncertainty about Nazeer’s punishment is the latest frustration for the families. Early last year, the families expressed anger that no leaders on base had been held accountable for lapses in security that allowed the attack. The top U.S. commander for the Middle East, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, eventually launched an investigation to determine whether Marine Corps leadership on base was partly to blame at the request of Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant.
Two major generals, Charles “Mark” Gurganus and Gregg Sturdevant, were forced into retirement following the release of the results of an investigation last fall. Gurganus, the top U.S. commander in Helmand province, and Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the region, “failed to exercise the level of judgement expected of commanders of their rank,” Amos said upon announcing the findings. The security plan for the Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak complex was “sub-optimal,” the investigation found.
Both generals said they were keenly aware of threats to Marines on smaller bases in Helmand, and also concerned about threats that contractors and Afghan troops on Leatherneck and Bastion would pose if they attacked coalition forces inside the base. A unit of insurgents attacking the base on foot from outside was lower on the list of perceived problems, however. Sturdevant also told investigators that the drawdown in U.S. troops across Afghanistan at the time had cut away a military police unit that controlled access to the Bastion airfield by manning a vehicle checkpoint.
Kim Raible, the fallen squadron commander’s mother, said she was disgusted to hear that Nazeer was turned over to Afghan authorities. She has asked many questions about the attack, but did not know about the appeals process until this week, she said.
“There’s never any answers,” she said. “To me, it’s just a total lack of regard for us and the Atwells and the loss that we have here.”
Caldwell, the Marine Corps spokesman, said in an e-mail that casualty assistance officers called the families Thursday with the latest news about Nazeer.
“As we approach the second anniversary of the attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, we honor the memory of Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, as well as the service of those Marines who fought alongside them,” Caldwell said.
UPDATE, 8:50 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect additional reporting.