What you are about to read is a true and accurate account of what happened in Benghazi from the initial attack to the final evacuation. Minor liberties are taken with regards to how the story is told in this chapter but the truth is at its core. While no one person’s account can represent the entire truth of a story, our hope is that by piecing together this complex puzzle together, that the facts coupled with first person accounts, will best represent what happened that tragic day. After all, the American people deserve to hear the unvarnished truth.
In his first visit to Benghazi in almost a year, Ambassador Stevens would arrive in Benghazi on September 10th, with Sean Smith and two DSS agents (Diplomatic Security). The only other Americans attached to state were three additional DSS personnel temporarily assigned to the Special Mission Benghazi compound. In total seven Americans with four local militia guards were left to promote diplomacy in one of the most hostile and unstable places on earth.
Stevens’s main mission was to conduct diplomatic relations with local government officials and pass assessments of Libya’s fragile state of affairs back to Washington. He would take one meeting in town on the 10th, but on the 11th all his appointments were conducted inside the compound as a security measure. The following events are true to the best of our knowledge, and many of the details have never been disclosed before.
Around 7:40pm the Ambassador escorted a Turkish diplomat to the compound’s main gate. Shortly after, around 8pm, a team of UK diplomatic security professionals dropped off borrowed vehicles and equipment, as was the arrangement after the UK had suspended diplomatic operations in June 2012 due to the increased threat level.
At 9pm, the Ambassador and Sean Smith retired to their rooms for the night.
Suddenly: BOOM! A Rocket Propelled Grenade hit the front gate of the compound with thunderous force. The guard stationed at the main gate had long fled the scene. He was attached to the Supreme Security Council (SSC). The SSC is a loose coalition of militia elements that are providing interim security in Libya. The SSC driver would later tell local press that he drove away under instructions to avoid further civilian casualties.
At the time of the attack the following personnel were in the compound:
- Ambassador Stevens (Ambassador’s Villa)
- Sean Smith (Ambassador’s Villa)
- 5 DSS Agents (4 in DSS Villa, 1 in TOC)
- 4 Local security hired from February 17 Marty’s Brigade (Inside the front gate)
The main gate was practically left open. All four of the local security had high tailed it out of there along with the SSC guard. Though the attack was coordinated, the attackers lacked training, a fact which would later play a role in the CIA team rescue. Many of the shots fired inside the compound were fired in the air and at nothing in general, mostly due to the fact there wasn’t any targets.
The American security officer on duty in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) could see dozens of armed men entering the compound through the main gate, through which the Ambassador escorted the Turkish diplomat only an hour earlier. He sounded the central alarm over the radios as soon as he noticed the local February 17 guards fleeing the area. It’s worth noting that the local guards hired by the State Department were armed only with bats, not firearms of any sort; it’s no surprise they fled.
One of the DSS agents was radioed by the TOC and asked to go secure the Ambassador. He grabbed his rifle and headed to the Villa. Once there, he instructed Stevens and Smith to put on body armor, and then led them to a secured area in the back of the building. He locked the door and radioed back their position and that they were secure for the moment. The DSS agent was armed with an M4 assault rifle, handgun and shotgun. Surprisingly no shots were fired by the DSS security, this may have been due to their lack of experience, training, and most importantly, bad odds. The DSS agent gave his cell phone to the Ambassador who began making calls back to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
They could hear the attackers destroying everything in their path in the adjacent rooms.
One of the DSS agents ran up to the TOC while the other two, upon encountering the attacking force, barricaded themselves in a separate Villa with one of the Feb. 17 guards they had run into. Still no shots had been fired in any effort to repel the attacking force, most of whom were unarmed.
The attack continued, and the militia members found a stockpile of fuel containers and began to light several vehicles in the compound on fire. They entered the Ambassador’s Villa and started destroying and looting the contents. They would find the locked door containing the Americans, and after unsuccessful attempts to gain entry, they retreated and began pouring diesel fuel into the room. Soon a raging toxic fire was underway as the fuel was lit and burning tires added to the blaze. None of the fires would be visible to the TOC’s security cameras until 10pm.
The Ambassador’s Villa became immersed in a thick cloud of rubber smoke. It was too much for them,and they were forced to crawl on their hands and knees into one of the bathrooms in the rear of the building. The DSS agent attempted to ventilate the room with fresh air by opening a window, but it had the opposite effect, and essentially sucked smoke onto their position at an alarming rate. Visibility in the room was at zero, and the security agent yelled for the Ambassador and Smith to follow him out of the room to another exit point. They all would have known that staying inside would mean certain death. They had no choice but to take their chances in the open, at the mercy of the attackers.
The security officer made it out of the building only to find himself alone in a hail of gun fire. He yelled for Stevens and Smith, but there was no answer. He re-entered the building several times to try to locate them both but would find neither of them. In a last desperate attempt he attempted to ventilate the smoke and broke several windows before calling for help. The Ambassador and Sean Smith would not be found. They wound up getting separated from each other amid the chaos, and within minutes each would suffocate to death from smoke inhalation.
The frenzied looting would overtake the other Villas in the compound. The attackers would try but be unsuccessful at gaining entry to both the main space of the TOC and the Villa safe room, the same one the other two other DS agents and a local guard where secure in.
After the Regional Security Officer (RSO) sounded the alarm and placed a call to the Benghazi CIA annex (a fortified base), and the Embassy in Tripoli. In a panicked voice he would say, “We’re under attack, we need help, please send help now….” The call cut off. The CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS) Team Leader (TL) and Ty Woods would confer. The GRS Team Leader respected Ty’s experience and listened intently as Ty made his case for the rescue mission. Ty was the senior security operative among them, with over twenty years of Special Operations experience as a Navy SEAL. He was a seasoned GRS operative, respected and loved by all that knew him. To Ty it was a matter of principal: Americans were at risk, and it was their job to help out. He would go alone if need be, and the TL knew it.
Among the many CIA paramilitary groups is the Global Response Staff (GRS). If you think of it in pop-culture terms, then GRS agents are similar to Jason Bourne without the complex spy work. GRS agents work closely with CIA Case Officers and Analysts to ensure that missions and security are tactically sound. Typical agents have a minimum of ten years of Special Operations experience. They come from all over, Army Green Berets, USMC Recon, Air Force Para-rescue/Combat Controllers, and like Ty Woods, the Navy SEALs. Agents undergo a rigorous security clearance with a series of tests that involve shooting, small unit tactics and driving. They are held to the highest of standards and more than one seasoned operator has failed the CIA’s operational readiness test standards. There is also another group that are recruited to conduct what we call “static” security. These men are mostly regular military and law enforcement professionals who are highly trained in base security.
Contrary to the many media myths about Benghazi, requests for help were not denied by the Obama administration. It appears as if every informed agency, and organization tried their best to give whatever help they could during the attack. As you will soon see, this would also be true at the smallest unit level, where several American patriots in Tripoli would do anything to rally to the aid of their fellow countrymen.
Ty and the TL made their case to the CIA Chief of Base (COB), but it fell on death ears. It is rumored that the COB initially said absolutely not, in no way would he authorize the GRS agents to conduct the rescue. Ty was relentless and assertive in his pursuit, he refused to take no for an answer; he explained that unless they did something all of the people in that compound would be dead. A few minutes later it became clear to the Chief of Base that Ty, and the rest of the GRS team were going to go with or without his permission. It is unknown whether he relented, authorized the rescue attempt, or simply turned a blind eye. Only the CIA after action report holds that information, and it is unlikely to surface for years to come. Regardless, it was Ty Woods’s persistence and patriotic sense of moral duty that would ultimately result in the go ahead for the rescue.
The GRS agents, all former Special Ops, would listen to Ty as he briefed them on the plan. It’s worth noting that while there would have been no time to come up with a perfect plan, a good plan executed immediately will save lives. If you wait too long to come up with a perfect plan, people die. Ty would have known this, and his plan would have been 90% instinct, honed over three decades of service to his country. (He had served twenty as a SEAL and the rest as a GRS operative.)
Six of the seven of them loaded up in two Toyota Land Cruisers. The Land Cruisers had a much larger capacity than the armored sedans. They would not drive through the main gate, as that would be too obvious. Instead, using the element of surprise, they planned to conduct an L-shaped ambush on the main body of attackers, and then shoot and maneuver to the TOC to link up with the other DSS agents. The Cruisers would stop short on the side of the walled State Department compound. They would lock the vehicles and use them to climb the main compound wall and take up positions. Nobody would fire a shot until the small team was in position, and then they would unleash Hell. Ty had radioed to DSS agent in the TOC and told them not to fire on their position as they were coming over the wall. To a man, everyone in that room knew what needed to be done, and were more than willing to follow Ty into the fight. They would do whatever they had to in order to save their fellow Americans. Most the men in that room had spent have their lives serving their country in some capacity.
One advantage that the CIA team had over their inexperienced State Department security counterparts was that they knew the area like the back of their hand, especially their immediate surroundings. There were hundreds of planned routes to and from their base into the dusty and dangerous streets of Benghazi. They had picked up dozens of CIA sources in an effort to hunt down stray Chemical and Nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction. Like Syria, Libya had its own dirty past, and the CIA had been conducting a very important mission to ensure that yellow cake (Uranium) didn’t make it onto the black market and into Extremists hands.
Five minutes later, at 2205, the men were fully briefed and loaded up in two of their up-armored indigenous vehicles all most likely fixed with stolen local plates, a common practice. To the casual observer they looked like regular Toyota Land Cruisers, but the initiated knew they were outfitted with the mods and armor that could survive a direct IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast and small arms fire. Each vehicle was equipped with a special encrypted communications suite, heavy weapons platform, grenade launchers, and more. The TL, Ty and four others would go; they left one agent to man the radios–not much action but a very important job none-the-less.
Less than 30 minutes after the initial attack, two vehicles and six GRS agents sped off for the State Department compound. The drive lasted only a few minutes, but with smoke billowing from the State compound visible in the distance, it must have seemed an eternity.
They kept a tight defensive driving formation to the compound. Each agent goes through extensive offensive and defensive driving schools, and they would give most professional race drivers a run for their money. “In at six out at nine”, the front car called out on the inter-team radios as they entered the last round about. Less than two blocks away and they could practically taste the smell of burning tires, and the unmistakable smell of spent gunpowder in the air.
“It’s pure survival when dealing with large crowds and you have to set harsh consequences for any threatening behavior. Kill everyone who isn’t a friendly. Lighten up and you put yourself and your teammates at risk and the mob mentality takes over.” – said a former GRS agent
They arrived outside the compound without much of a fight, they set up their vehicles along the perimeter wall, locked the doors and phoned the agent in the TOC to let them know they were coming over the wall and to hold their fire. Why leave the vehicles? Because they had no choice, it was a hasty plan, and in reality the armored cars were virtually impenetrable left alone. Worst case, they would have to hump it through the streets back to their base. No time to waste: up and over the wall.
Meanwhile back at the CIA base, the communicators were busy passing email and cable traffic notifying their chain of command of current developments. Everyone at the CIA base worked relentlessly to support one another that day, including a small CIA and JSOC element in Tripoli that were itching to get in the fight to support their fellow Americans. This included Glen Doherty, who had volunteered to go back to Libya for a second time. We know that his decision was based on his friendship with Ty Woods, and the knowledge that his experience would be appreciated and meaningful to the Agency’s mission to round up the remaining WMD wandering the black markets of Libya.
The element in Tripoli consisted of two active duty JSOC Operators and five CIA personnel. Unknown to the public until now, the CIA and JSOC element led by Glen practically hi-jacked a small jet in Tripoli and forced the pilots to fly them to Benghazi so they could get in the fight. They used cash on hand and paid the crew $30,000 USD for the flight. Money talks in Libya, and soon they were on their way.
Here it’s important for the reader to understand the complexity of the situation. Events were developing extremely rapidly – by the minute – and Libya is not an established theatre. Having the Department of State, CIA and the U.S. Military (Africa Command among others) in the mix, with no clear command structure, would add to an already complicated and volatile situation. It’s widely known by insiders that intense rivalries among these agencies exist. CIA, JSOC and State do not talk to one another on a regular basis, nor do they share information well.
At the State Department compound, Ty’s team had set up and started to unleash everything they had on the attacking force. His guys had one MK46 machine gun, and individual H&K 416’s complimented with GLM’s (H&K 40mm grenade launchers). One of Ty’s team members was a USMC veteran of Iraq and the blood bath of Fallujah. Ty’s team unloaded on the enemy and soon had them on the run. The former Marine, having a bandolier of “golden eggs” (40mm grenades), would lob grenades as Ty directed; they worked with such efficiency that their teammates would describe it as witnessing a conductor working with a master musician. Within minutes the small six-man team had turned the tide: dead enemy littered the compound and the rest were confused and running for cover. At this point Ty signaled for the team to head for the main TOC building.
The GRS agents would fire and maneuver their way to link up with the DSS agents. It was the effort of Ty’s team that enabled a lull in fire long enough for the remaining DSS in the outlying Villa to join up with the main element. It was here that Ty and the TL made the decision to send the DSS team back to the CIA compound. The DSS guys were too inexperienced to be of much help; but Ty and the GRS team were another breed: would stay a bit longer and search for the Ambassador and Sean Smith.
The GRS agents called back to the CIA base and let them know to expect one inbound vehicle containing the State Department personnel. Ty gave the DSS agents a quick lay of the land outside the gate, and was explicit in his instructions for them to make a hard right turn out of the gate. “Do not go left into bad guy land”, he said. The instructions would be ignored, unfortunately, and the State vehicle made a left and immediately encountered a hail of gun fire. Lucky for them the armored windows would hold up, and they would eventually make it back to the CIA base unharmed.
Wasting no time, the elite GRS team worked their way to the ambassador’s burning Villa. Small arms fire was starting to pick up again, and they had to shoot their way to the burning building as several RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenades) exploded nearby. Woomp BOOM! Woomp BOOM! Passing through a hail of bullets, they entered into the blazing building and began searching for the Ambassador. Ty’s instructions in the burning building saved at least one man who almost took a wrong turn into the flaming maze. They located Sean Smith, who was unconscious and would later be declared dead. They spent a few more precious minutes searching for the Ambassador before deciding that the compound was at risk of being overrun by enemy forces. They no longer had the element of surprise working for them. With their finite supply of ammunitions running low, they radioed that there was no sign of the Ambassador, and they were on their way back. It was the best they could do in an almost impossible situation.
They would shoot their way back to the cars, again coming under heavy enemy rocket and AK-47 fire. They returned firewith well-aimed shots–only in Hollywood do you see guys spraying on full auto. In Special Ops it’s all about well-aimed effective fire, and conserving ammunition. They would arrive back at the vehicles, sending a few more attackers to Allah, while remaining virtually unscathed under the leadership of Ty Woods.
Once inside the vehicle,the team called back to base. “Five minutes out”.
Ty’s team sped through the Libyan neighborhood. Their cars were rattled by small arms fire, tires flattened, and windows filled with the spider cracks that come with embedded lead. But the Agency’s armored vehicles would hold up. Driving armored cars is tricky; it requires skill to deal with the added gross weight. Take a turn to sharp and you dig a rim and roll because of the weight of the vehicle. These agents were professionals with decades of experience driving under hostile conditions. “One minute out”, they called back to base. The gate closed at approximately 2350, a small wave of relief would have overcome the team, but they were too seasoned to not know the fight was far from over. Things would be relatively calm, at least for the next hour.
Meanwhile, local militia leaders were busy coordinating their next move. They would re-position for attack on the CIA base just after midnight. The Americans would soon come under a barrage of machine gun, rocket, and mortar fire.
The attackers quickly found out that the CIA base was heavily fortified and prepared for an attack. Fighting positions, heavy weapons, skilled paramilitary professionals, high intensity floodlights (blinding any would be attacker), and highly paid indigenous security personnel. Unlike State’s foreign security, the Agency’s were well armed. This would end up giving the Americans a tremendous advantage, and ultimately ensure their safe evacuation.
The fight started just after midnight. It would be a sleepless night as the GRS and DSS agents, along with their local security, would fend off attacks throughout the night. They would rack up dozens of enemy KIA. The intensity would never get to the point where the CIA thought they were at risk of being overrun; however, this would soon change as the sun came up on the 12th.
Early in the morning, the hi-jacked jet carrying Glen Doherty and his team from Tripoli would land in Benghazi. The U.S. team would be initially held up at the airport for a few hours. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or not, but the Americans eventually forced their way through. Just after 0500, the seven-man support team would arrive to aid their countrymen at the CIA annex. Minutes after their vehicle drove through the gate the base would come under heavy fire. Glen and his fellow Americans were quick to take up defensive positions and join in the fight. At this point several of the enemy tried coming over the wall but were dispatched with lethal accuracy. All told, the handful Americans would kill just under a hundred enemy attackers.
When the fighting lulled, Glen began searching for his good friend Ty. He was told that Ty was on the rooftop manning the MK46 machine gun with two others, directing the main defending element. Glen climbed onto the rooftop to join his friend without possibly knowing the gravity of that decision.
On the roof of the CIA base, the two long-time SEAL friends briefly embraced like brothers, and both quickly fill each other in. Soon they re-took defensive firing positions to engage the enemy along the outer perimeter. Ty would yell out a quick endorsing introduction of Glen, who he referred to by his call sign “BUB”, to the other two guys on the roof. In-between a lull in fire, the three men would tell Glen how glad they were to have more capable bodies in the fight, and how much they appreciated their effort to get to Benghazi.
They would fight together on that rooftop half a world away from their homes for only a few more minutes. Meanwhile the attacker’s skilled mortar team was using a common tactic of “bracketing” to find their mark. They would fire a couple rounds, adjust based on where they landed, and then send two more mortars. The rounds were getting closer with each shot.
“WREESHHH…BOOM!”, Ty’s position was hit with a French 81mm mortar round, fatally wounding the veteran warrior. Ty’s body would shield the other GRS agent– saving the agent’s life, though still leaving him critically wounded. As Glen attempted to re-position and to take cover, a second round dropped onto his position, killing him instantly. A third round hit the DSS agent’s position, wounding him and shredding his leg from the fragments.
Glen and Ty’s death would severely impact their fellow teammates and influence the two GRS agents, long after the fight, to quit as a result of their deaths. They were the type of men people looked up to and loved. They were exemplary in all aspects of their personal and professional lives. With no time for personal reflection, they would die with a gun in their hands, defending their fellow Americans.
Without hesitation, and clearly putting themselves at risk, several agents, including one JSOC guy, ran up to the roof to assess the damage and give aid to the wounded. His quick action would unquestionably save two men’s lives. They lowered the bodies down with rope from they cut from gym equipment. The GRS agent was able to make it down the ladder on his own, and the JSOC guy literally strapped the wounded DSS agent to his back and climbed down the ladder under a hail of incoming fire.
At this time the other JSOC operator was monitoring the situation from his hand-held ROVER, a device used to display sensor data from a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator overhead.
It was an unarmed drone equipped with multiple sensors to detect infrared (IR), and thermal signatures. The drone had been re-directed to the scene by the DoD’s AFRICOM (Africa Command) at the request of the JSOC Operator. It would contribute to the overall situational awareness of the ground-based team, and the information would be a huge factor in the next decision that would save all of their lives.
“There’s a large element assembling, and we need to get everyone out of here now!” the JSOC man would relay to the Chief of Base and GRS TL. The footage on the ROVER’s screen would be enough to convince the CIA Chief. They immediately notified everyone to evacuate, and to gather up all their personal security items.
To the CIA’s credit when all told, they would successfully rescue six State Department personnel, recover Smith’s body, and get approximately thirty Americans out of Benghazi alive. And they also didn’t compromise any classified material in the process. The CIA team would leave the compound locked, and in the hands of a trusted local.
Within minutes of the decision, the vehicles were loaded and the Americans were on their way to the airport. They would encounter small arms fire but arrive unscathed in time to meet the first of two aircraft that would fly them back to Tripoli.
Earlier, while the CIA compound was under attack, the Embassy in Tripoli had been trying to coordinate with an unknown caller concerning the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens body. A call had come in at 2:00 am on the borrowed cell phone that was loaned to Stevens by the DSS agent. They were suspicious that it was another guise to lure the Americans into further casualties. The decision was made to send a trusted local, familiar with the Ambassador, to the Benghazi Medical Center where he positively identified Stevens’s body. We’re unsure about the details but arrangements were made to transport the Ambassador’s remains to the airport. We’ve heard that there was an exchange of fire in the handoff process, but it’s unconfirmed. There was likely a money exchange involved regardless of what happened.
At 0730 a chartered jet took the wounded and a small number of American evacuees back to Tripoli in the first wave. A second Libyan aircraft (C-130) would take the remaining Americans, including Ambassador Stevens’s body that had arrived by ambulance at the airport around 8:30 in the morning. They would all land in Tripoli at 11:30. The bodies and wounded were sent to Germany on two U.S. Air Force aircraft (C-130 and a C-17). The planes would arrive in Ramstein Air Force Base around 10:30 at night, nearly 24 hours since the initial attack commenced.
The CIA did an exemplary job with virtually no outside support. They would leave Benghazi with all Americans accounted for. Ty’s leadership that day, and his refusal to sit by and allow his fellow Americans to be overrun is a testament to his charater. His willingness to stand up to his CIA boss, and do what’s right is an example of true American heroism. Glen Doherty ran toward the sound of gunfire, and his CIA and JSOC comrades could have waited it out in Tripoli. Instead they practically hi-jacked a local plane and forced their way into the fight. Their presence and the JSOC elements access to the Predator drone would ultimately determine the final decision to evacuate and the Americans.
All gave some, and some gave all during those two days in Benghazi.
(Featured Image Courtesy: State Department)
— Coming Wednesday, Feb. 6 – Chapter Five: Myth Busting —
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