From the pages of “Benghazi: Know Thy Enemy” by Sarah Adams and Dave “Boon” Benton, on this 11th anniversary of the Benghazi attacks, they reflect on what they didn’t know on September 10th, 2012, drawing valuable lessons for the current state of Afghanistan.
The Interconnected Mujahideen Network
We didn’t realize the intricate web of connections among various militia groups in Benghazi, rooted in their shared experiences in Afghanistan. There is a reason Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qa’ida leader at the time, trusted and directed this network to target Americans in Libya; he fought alongside them during the muj-era.
Highlighting some key figures involved from Afghanistan, beyond al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdel Malik Droukal and Mohktar Belmoktar, the actual mastermind of the Benghazi Mission attack, who orchestrated it under the direction of Zawahiri, were:
• Seifallah ben Hassine led Ansar al-Sharia-Tunisia and was notorious for providing Tunisian suicide bombers responsible for the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9th,2001.
• Sufyan bin Qumo led Ansar al-Sharia-Darnah and was one of the two former Guantanamo Bay detainees we’ve identified in connection with our attacks.
• Mohammad al-Gharabi led Rafallah al-Sahati Brigades, not only contributing numerous attackers to the Mission assault but also overseeing the mortar team that struck the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Annex.
• Ismail al-Sallabi, the founder of the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, played a significant role in providing the attackers on September 11th, 2012, who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith while having only three armed guards at the Mission.
• Hafiz al-Aqouri, a senior leader in Libya Shield, a group that was erroneously reported as our rescue force. In reality, its leader, Wissam bin Humaid, directed the deadly mortar strikes on the CIA Annex on September 12th, 2012, that killed Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Zawahiris’s Secret Role in the Libyan Revolution
Back in 2011, during the Libyan revolution, we had no idea that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was secretly playing a direct role in the Revolution by sending terrorists to Libya. For example, Zawahiri tasked Hafiz al-Aqouri to help smuggle in 400 al-Qaida fighters to Libya through the Sudanese border to fight against Gaddafi’s forces. Aqouri, at the time, fought alongside the terrorist who would become the CIA Annex Attack Mastermind on September 12th, Wissam bin Humaid in the Free Libya Martyrs Brigade, but also continued his affiliation with al-Qaida. Aqouri was just one of the many al-Qaida members tasked with this mission. Others, like Abdel Moneim al-Madhouni, Salem Nour al-Din al-Dibisky, and Abdul Basit Azzouz, whose three cousins were 2012 Benghazi attackers, played similar roles.
Bin Laden’s Unknown Blueprint for Libya
Usama bin Laden had a master plan for al-Qa’ida in Libya. After his death in May 2011, it came to light that he foresaw the need for unity among al-Qa’ida and its affiliated groups in Libya. He believed that a united front of many groups operating under the al-Qa’ida banner would be more potent in challenging the Gaddafi regime piecemeal. In early 2011, bin Laden directed al-Qa’ida’s Benghazi leadership to establish shura councils to consolidate their power. This directive eventually led to the formation of groups starting in 2014 like the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), the Darnah Revolutionaries Shura Council (DRSC), and the Ajdabiya Revolutionaries Shura Council (ARSC), all answering to bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri.
The Hidden Hand Behind Targeted Assassinations
Throughout 2012, the wave of daily assassinations in Benghazi that made headlines were meticulously orchestrated by al-Qa’ida, unbeknownst to us. Al-Qa’ida operative Abu Anas al-Libi, a mastermind of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, was the brains behind this assassination platform in Benghazi. These assassinations targeted police, military personnel, judges, and security officials, plunging Benghazi into perpetual fear and hampering the formation of legitimate government entities.
Further east, Sufyan bin Qumo was tasked with the same role, establishing al-Qa’ida assassination units in Darnah. Leading these assassination units with him was 2012 Benghazi attacker Ali bin Taher. Ali was the terrorist who stole the CIA’s armored sedan from the U.S. Mission during the attacks and then drove it home to Darnah. These units carried out near-daily assassinations from 2011 to mid-2014 until General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) initiated Operation Dignity. It was during this operation that the LNA declared war against terrorist groups in eastern Libya.
Al-Qa’ida’s Covert Training
We were unaware of the flourishing terrorist training infrastructure established by al-Qa’ida in Benghazi after the Libyan revolution. Boubaker al-Hakim, a 2012 Benghazi attacker, a former member of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), and a close associate of Seifallah Ben Hassine played a central role. In early 2012, he established a terrorist training center for al-Qa’ida in an old Army base in Ganfouda. Boubaker trained foreign fighters for al-Qa’ida, who were subsequently deployed from Benghazi to conflict zones, including Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. Al-Qa’ida also exploited this location near the port to smuggle weapons and ammunition to terrorism hotspots, taking advantage of the stockpiles left behind by Gaddafi’s regime.
August and September 2012 weren’t Boon’s first encounters with Boubaker. Their paths had crossed years earlier in Fallujah, Iraq. On March 31st, 2004, Boubaker and his associates ambushed four Blackwater contractors: Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, and Mike Teague. Boon was in the vicinity of this tragic event. On that same day, Boubaker’s network was also involved in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack, which claimed the lives of five more Americans. Among the fallen were 1st Lt. Doyle M. Hufstedler, Army Spc. Sean R. Mitchell, Spc. Michael G. Karr Jr., Pfc. Cleston C. Raney, and Pvt. Brandon L. Davis, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Al-Qa’ida’s Veiled Base in Ganfouda
We had no knowledge of the extent of al-Qa’ida’s presence and influence in Benghazi when their base was in Ganfouda. This stronghold would later become an international focal point for the terrorist organization. Both AQIM’s leader, Droukdal, and the man who would later become his successor, Abu Ubaidah Youssef al-Annab, issued an international plea for terrorists to come to Benghazi in October 2015 to aid in saving al-Qa’ida’s base during the Battle of Benghazi. In their request, they also invoked the memory of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a significant rallying cry during the September 11th, 2012, Benghazi attacks. Their appeal temporarily worked, as enough terrorists filtered into Benghazi, allowing the battle to continue for almost 14 more months.
The Battle of Benghazi came to a close soon after the early December 2016 death of Wissam bin Humaid, who was killed by a mortar strike. Al-Qa’ida was concerned that Wissam’s death might symbolize the end of the war. Initially, they made significant efforts to conceal it in order to keep terrorists focused on fighting the LNA. However, this strategy did not provide al-Qa’ida with much additional time. By late January 2017, the LNA had successfully defeated al-Qa’ida’s base in Benghazi.
Failure to Heed Clear Warnings
On September 12th, the day after the attack on the U.S. Mission, Libyan elections were scheduled to choose their next Prime Minister. To provide context, on September 5th, the General National Congress (GNC) had nominated candidates to replace the outgoing Libyan Prime Minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib. Key contenders included Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S. ally during the Libyan Revolution and the U.S.-backed candidate in 2012, as well as Awadh al-Barassi and Mustafa Abu Shagur.
Wissam bin Humaid and Mohammad al-Gharabi supported Barassi, Jibril’s primary rival. Barassi intended to appoint 17 February Leader Fawzi Bu Khatif as the Libyan Minister of Defense. Consequently, on September 8th, Bu Khatif, whose militia guarded the U.S. Mission, declared that his group would no longer support movements outside the compound. In preparation for the Ambassador’s visit, the CIA assumed these security responsibilities, replacing 17 February. Furthermore, on September 9th, Gharabi and Wissam informed the U.S. Mission’s Principal Officer that they couldn’t guarantee security due to U.S. support for Jibril’s candidacy. Subsequently, it was revealed that all three groups had prior knowledge of the attacks and willingly supplied terrorists to al-Qa’ida for the assaults.
In conclusion, while residing in Benghazi, we were CIA operatives, yet we found ourselves plagued by intelligence gaps just one day before the fateful attacks on September 11th and 12th. Our hope is that these lessons learned serve as a stark reminder of how swiftly al-Qa’ida entrenched itself in Benghazi following its liberation, emphasizing the importance of not underestimating or ignoring its resurgence in Afghanistan. Failure to do so could lead to more tragedies like Benghazi and further 9/11 incidents on the horizon. In honor of our fallen, may we learn from our mistakes and never repeat them.
About the Authors
Sarah Adams is an award-winning targeting officer and global threat advisor with extensive domestic and international experience. Previously, Ms. Adams held positions in the government and non-profit sectors and has worked overseas on behalf of the U.S. Government’s intelligence mission in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
David “Boon” Benton was a key member of the CIA annex security squad that bravely responded to the terror assault on the US Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. Battling insurgents for over 13 hours, the team successfully rescued more than 20 individuals. He boasts 24 years of dedicated service across an array of specialized units, spanning the military, law enforcement, protective security, and intelligence sectors, often taking on leadership roles.
Together, they co-authored Behghazi: Know Thy Enemy. It’s a great read; get your copy today!