New details emerge on “complex” Benghazi attack; Marines sent to Tripoli

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in Misrata. SOURCE: U.S. Embassy in Libya via Facebook.

Senior U.S. officials last night described the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya as “clearly complex”, suggesting that the deadly assault was planned by militants who may have used the angry religious demonstrations as pretext for the strike.  

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in Misrata. SOURCE: U.S. Embassy in Libya via Facebook.

“It was clearly a complex attack,” said a senior U.S. official during a State Department press teleconference Wednesday night. “We’re going to have to do a full investigation. We are committed to working the LIbyans both on the investigation and to ensure that we bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Read more: Timeline of the deadly U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya

The Bengazhi attack killed 4 Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. (Autopsies will be performed to determine cause of death.) The State Department yesterday withheld the names of two of the deceased pending next of kin notifications. While details are still trickling in, at least 3 American Embassy personnel were confirmed wounded.

U.S. officials have declined to speculate whether the Benghazi attack is linked to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or its affiliates.

“It’s just too early to speak to who they were and if they might have otherwise been affiliated beyond Libya,” said a senior administration official.

The Benghazi consulate was attacked and set on fire on the same day violent protestors – who were angry over an American-made film that purportedly ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad – stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. This morning, the U.S. Embassy in Yemen was also reportedly attacked by violent demonstrators.

U.S. officials did confirm that the FBI is investigating the Benghazi attack and that a Marine Corps fleet antiterrorism security team (FAST) based out of Europe has been deployed to Tripoli to provide added security to the U.S. Embassy and to protect American citizens “as needed.”

The vicious gun battle began late Tuesday night on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and lasted for 4.5 hours as American and Libyan security forces fought against heavily armed extremists to regain control of the main consulate building and defend the nearby annex.

“I’d also like to underscore that it was Libyan security forces that stood with ours in defending our buildings…One of the local militia who is friendly to the Embassy came to assist as well. And I think that really speaks to the relationship we’ve built with Libya,” said a senior U.S. official.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both spoken with Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf, who has expressed his condolences for the American casualties and pledged to fully cooperate with the U.S. investigation and provide security for American personnel in Libya.

Since the attack, the U.S. is reviewing and boosting security in diplomatic posts overseas. However, questions remain whether the security arrangements were adequate at the Benghazi consulate when the attack took place.

“We did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th. At that point, there was no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured,” said a senior U.S. official.

The deceased, the wounded, and the entire Benghazi consulate staff were evacuated to Tripoli yesterday and then flown to Ramstein Landstahl Airbase.

Only emergency staffs remain at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, and the evacuated embassy staff will stay in Ramstein on stand by as the State Department assess the security situation on the ground.

Stevens was in Benghazi as part of his “regular and frequent trips” there to check on the developments in the eastern part of Libya, officials said.

Stevens “spent a lot of time in Benghazi and built deep contacts there” when he served as the U.S. Envoy to advise the Libyan Transitional National Council before the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

Benghazi was the hotbed of anti-Gaddafi rebellion during the Arab Spring revolutions. The city came under heavy attack by pro-Gaddafi forces in March of 2011 but was saved by NATO air support authorized by United Nations Resolution 1973.

Initial timeline* of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya:

(*Based on information provided by the State Department on Sept. 12, 2012)

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012

10 p.m. local time

The main building of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi came under fire.

The temporary Benghazi consulate facilities were acquired before the ouster of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi last year. The U.S. consulate consisted of a main building, several ancillary buildings, and an annex building further away. Between 25 to 30 American personnel were in the main compound and annex at the time of the attack.

While officials declined to comment on details of any U.S. government facilities overseas, they did confirm that, per standard procedure, both the main consulate building and the annex have physical perimeters set up with local (Libyan) guards staffed outside the compound and a “robust American security presence inside the compound, including a strong component of regional security officers.”

10:15 p.m. local time

“Libyan extremists” breached the compound and “began firing into the main building, setting it on fire.” The Libyan guards and U.S. security forces returned fire.

At the time, three people were inside the main consulate building: U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and a regional security officer (RSO) – the State Department special agent in charge of providing security to the ambassador.

“They became separated from each other due to the heavy, dark smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building,” said a senior administration official.

The RSO made it out of the building, and he and other security personnel went back inside the burning building to rescue Stevens and Smith. They found Smith dead and pulled his body from the building.

“They were unable, however, to locate [Stevens] before they were driven from the building due to the heavy fire and smoke and the continuing small arms fire,” the official said.

10:45 p.m. local time

Security personnel from the consulate’s annex building arrived at the scene and tried to “regain the main building.” However, the official said, heavy fire forced them to turn back.

11:20 p.m. local time

On the second attempt, U.S. & Libyan security forces were able to regain possession and control of the main building. But continued gunfire forced them to evacuate all Embassy personnel to the annex building nearby.

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012

12 a.m. local time

Gunmen attacked the consulate’s annex building. The gunfight lasted for 2 hours, killing 2 more Americans and wounding 2.

2:30 a.m. local time

Libyan security forces helped U.S. forces fight back against the armed extremists. They were able to regain control of the situation 4.5 hours after the attack began.

“At some point in all of this – and frankly, we do not know when – we believe that Ambassador Stevens got out of the [main] building and was taken to a hospital in Benghazi. We do not have any information about what his condition was at the time. His body was later returned the U.S. personnel at the Benghazi airport,” said the official. Given the available information last night, it appeared that Stevens was transported to the hospital by Libyans.

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