Home inContext What Really Happened in Benghazi?

What Really Happened in Benghazi?

Michael Johnson

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi shocked most Americans and triggered a multitude of questions: Who perpetrated the attack? Why weren’t U.S. forces deployed to assist the Americans? Was Ambassador Christopher Stevens targeted? How will the U.S. respond?

Since September 11, a picture of what happened is becoming more clear. According to a CIA timeline, at 9:40pm a CIA base less than one mile from the Benghazi diplomatic mission received notice that the mission was under attack. The security team responded and entered the compound. Soon after 11pm, an unarmed Predator drone made it to the scene, and by 11:30 all U.S. personnel were evacuated and heading toward the CIA base, except Ambassador Stevens who was missing. Around 5am, a second wave of the attack began, this time aimed at the CIA outpost. Two CIA contractors were killed during the onslaught before the Libyan military could escort the remaining U.S. personnel to the airport.

A Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. mission in Benghazi two days after the attack that killed four Americans. (Photo: AP/Mohammad Hannon)

Media reports and Congressional inquiries are shining even more light on the details. In testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, former Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Libya, Eric Nordstrom, noted that security at the U.S. post in Benghazi was “inappropriately low” and his requests to the State Department to increase the American security presence received no response. Indeed, there was reason for Nordstrom to worry. Since mid-2011, there had been numerous security incidents in Benghazi including two bombings targeting the U.S. compound. In August, Ambassador Stevens called the security situation in Libya “unpredictable, volatile, and violent,” noting that security provided by Libya “cannot be depended on”. He was right — the morning of the attack, a local police officer was seen taking photos of the consulate.

As for the American response during the attack, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, deploying forces to Benghazi was decided against because he lacked sufficient intelligence information. Eventually, Panetta ordered American military forces in the region to move closer to Libya. Fox News, however, has questioned some of these assertions. Its reporting states that not long after the attack began, two unmanned drones capable of providing real-time surveillance were sent to the area. The news source also reports that Washington never requested assistance from forces outside the country, when the Sigonella air base in Italy — not far from Benghazi — was housing a unit that specializes in counterterrorism rescues.

And most recently, there is speculation that the mission in Benghazi, and Ambassador Stevens in particular, was connected to, or at least aware of, arms shipments being sent from Libya to the rebels in Syria.

Indeed, even as new information is brought to light, the details of what really happened in Benghazi remain unclear.