The Other 9/11: Libyan Guards Recount What Happened in Benghazi

Based on interviews with Libyan guards and militia, TIME reconstructs what happened on the night the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked, burned and looted.

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.

More than a month after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, U.S. officials have yet to talk to many of the Libyan guards on duty at the American mission on that fatal evening. Fearful of reprisal from the still unknown perpetrators of the attack, the guards have gone into hiding; and their vivid recollections are giving way to a sense of abandonment by the American government, which offered them no protection from the attackers the guards believe want them dead. TIME’s Steven Sotloff has talked to the guards for their account of what happened on the night of Sept. 11, 2012 and the early hours of the day after. Five of the guards were employees of the British security company Blue Mountain, and three others were members of the Islamist-leaning February 17th militia who were tasked with providing diplomatic security for foreign missions. To protect them from possible retribution, their names have been changed. What is clear is that, as others have reported, there was no protest, simply a sudden siege of the compound; U.S. security forces–including U.S. Marines who arrived at an American safe house outside the consulate grounds–were overwhelmed and stymied; and that the looters apparently came upon the body of a still-breathing Ambassador Chris Stevens.

At around 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, the four guards at the compound entrance—Nasser, Ubayd, Abdullah and Anwar–were casually eating sandwiches and talking about a recent soccer game, trying to pass the time on another monotonous night of watch duty. This one seemed no different from the others before: days and nights staring at the high walls that obscured the luxury villas in the posh Benghazi neighborhood where the American mission was located.  But on this night, the silence of the secluded streets was dramatically shattered.

First, from beyond the walls, came the yells of “God is Great!” Nasser went out to investigate. “I immediately heard RPG explosions and saw a large group heading toward us up the road,” he said. Outnumbered and outgunned, the four abandoned their posts, with Nasser and Ubayd fleeing south to what was called the C villa in the center of the compound, a building that housed the office of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was visiting from the Libyan capital Tripoli. Abdullah ran towards the cantina east of C villa where a grenade exploded nearby.  “I remember the shrapnel that landed in my leg was very hot and I was shaken, a bit dizzy,” he recalled. A group of attackers then passed him on the way to encircling the cantina. They shot him twice in the leg.  Others beat him so hard he lost consciousness. He awakened later in the Benghazi Medical Center.

As the guards from the front of the property desperately sought safe haven from the grenades and the kind of explosives used for blast fishing, attackers began a siege of the back entrance of the compound.  “I heard them shout ‘God is Great!’ and then they started shooting,” said Mikhlaf, one of the guards in the rear gate.  He darted toward the cantina where he saw Ambassador Stevens’ bodyguard running across the lawn towards the C villa.  “He was a big black man with a machine gun,” Mikhlaf recounted.  “He looked really angry.”  As the Libyan guard arrived at the cantina, however, two Americans who had accompanied Stevens from Tripoli slammed the door on him.

Hussein, a guard who was stationed at another observation point, approached the cantina from the northeast side and headed toward the kitchen. “There were two [other] black men there.  Both were wearing body armor.”  They spent most of the next hour holed up in the cantina, squatting on the floor with their rifles pointed at the door as they made and received phone calls. The Americans—apart from Stevens’ bodyguard and the two in the cantina, there were two in the compound’s tactical operations center–were Diplomatic Security agents tasked with protecting American installations abroad.

Meanwhile, near the swimming pool behind the C villa, a group of attackers cornered Anwar, a guard belonging to the February 17th militia that was helping to secure the compound. “There doesn’t need to be blood spilled,” he implored.  His plea worked and the attackers led him out of the compound.

Northwest of the cantina at the February 17th barracks, militia member Fadil heard the American diplomatic security agents on the radio. “They said ‘Attack!  Attack!’ and then our names, but there was nothing we could do. There were just too many of them.” Peering out from the barracks, Fadil saw about 15 men jump over the main gate. “They opened it and dozens flowed in.” Within minutes of arriving at the compound’s perimeter, the attackers had overrun it.  A group of attackers headed towards the barracks where Fadil and Tawfiq, another February 17th guard, had barricaded themselves. Loud explosions and gunshots were heard everywhere.  “They were spraying bullets,” Fadil recounted.  “They had vests with grenades on them and they just threw and threw them.” One attacker seemed headed toward Fadil. “I saw the guy looking into my eyes and I shot him,” Fadil said.

Locked out of the cantina, Mikhlaf ran south towards the Tactical Operations Center, hiding behind a sandbag levy. But after 20 minutes, one of the attackers found him and others quickly gathered around.  They hit his head repeatedly as they taunted him.  “You are not a Muslim,” they shouted.  “You help the people who are against Allah and say bad things about the Prophet.”  The attackers dragged Mikhlaf to the front of the C villa where 15-to-20 men continued to beat him.  “I thought I was going to die until one of the crowd jumped on me to protect me,” Mikhlaf said. The man led Mikhlaf out of the compound.

The attackers found Nasser and Ubayd in the laundry room behind the C villa.  “Are we safe if we open the door?’ they asked, trying to negotiate with the attackers before unlocking it. Apparently not. “They pulled our hair and beat us for 10 minutes,” Ubayd said.  One man wearing what he called “Afghan” garb – a long baggy robe with pants underneath — stood out among the others, shouting orders and landing the most ferocious blows.  “He said I was not a Muslim and had to die.  He couldn’t have been Libyan. He didn’t look Libyan and Libyans just don’t dress like that.” After 10 minutes of insults and beatings, the attackers told Nasser and Ubayd to leave the compound.

While Hussein, Fadil and Tawfiq were able to evade the attackers, Anwar, Mikhlaf, Nasser and Ubayd were being led out of the compound where another group of assailants roughed them up.  “There were many people at the entrance,” Ubayd said.  “Maybe one hundred.  Some wore Afghan clothing and others had their faces covered.” After absorbing another round of blows, some of the attackers escorted them to their cars and they drove off.

About 3.2 km away from the compound, at the February 17th Brigade’s headquarters, militia members heard the battle raging.  “We got in our vehicles in less than five minutes,” says Wisam, a militia fighter. “There were about 18 of us in five pickup trucks.” Within minutes they arrived on the road leading to the mission. There they found the attackers organized in large groups. “There were too many people and we couldn’t resist them,” Wisam said. When the militia told the besiegers that they were trying to reach the mission to verify that their comrades were safe, an attacker fired off two warning shots at their feet.  “We were a clear target so we turned around and headed down the street.”  Once out of range of the attackers’ small arms fire, the militia set up a position and bombarded the mob with longer-range weapons.  “We started shooting back with [Russian anti-aircraft] Dushkas and RPGs.  It was a 90 minute firefight.” The militia contingent was reinforced with other February 17th fighters who set up a perimeter along the streets surrounding the U.S. compound.

Yet the attackers did not retreat. Instead, they took cover in neighboring villas where the high walls concealed their presence. When Mikhlaf, Nasser and Ubayd passed the February 17th blockades on their way back to the mission, around an hour after the beginning of the assault, they were ambushed by the attackers several villas away.  “They came out of the mission and opened fire on us.  We heard many RPGs and a long fire fight between February 17th and the attackers,” Ubayd said.

About 45 minutes into the fighting, a quick reaction team composed of six Americans from what was called the “annex,” an unofficial, low-key “safe house” for U.S. security forces approximately two kilometers away. They came barreling down to the mission in a BMW sedan and a Mercedes Benz SUV. There they encountered Wisam and about 40 other February 17th members, some of whom helped escort the Americans into the compound.  “We jogged alongside the cars,” Wisam said.  “There were 12 of us.  We didn’t know what to expect inside.”  When they arrived, the quick reaction team split up.  Several headed to the burning C villa to look for Ambassador Stevens, and Sean Smith, an information management officer, but the thick smoke hindered their search.  After several attempts, they found Smith’s body. He had died from inhaling smoke from the burning buildings.

Fadil watched what was going on from the roof of the February 17th barracks, where he had taken refuge. When members of his militia reached the mission, he discerned the voice of his commander and finally thought it safe to emerge from the barracks. “They shouted they were with February 17th and they had come to rescue the Americans.” Fadil then headed to the C villa. “I saw two Americans [including one apparently of Asian descent, who were at the compound from the beginning of the attack] in a Toyota outside the C villa,” he said. “I told [the Americans] to go but they said they had to stay and look for the ambassador. The Chinese guy was shot in the hand and the other was covered in smoke.” After several fruitless attempts to locate Stevens, they gave up their search.

As the Americans stumbled through the smoldering villa, the attackers let loose with another barrage from the southern or back entrance of the consulate compound, throwing grenades and firing RPGs. “There was 20 minutes of aggressive fire,” Wisam said. “The Americans wanted to get out but didn’t know what to do.” After several minutes of debating with the February 17th members, the quick reaction team ultimately decided the militia should secure the street outside the north entrance to facilitate their escape.  When the Mercedes finally darted out of the compound, small arms fire and RPGs landed around the car before it headed south toward the annex.

After the attack subsided and the Libyan guards finally evacuated the compound, the diplomatic mission became prey to the looters not all of whom were associated with the attackers. “They took everything that had value,” said Tamir, a Military Police officer who arrived at the mission around 11:30 PM.  The vandals spray painted graffiti on the walls with words such as ‘testicles’ and ‘God is Great!’  Others left oozing paint with their names as a memento of their visit. But at the C villa, they came upon an unexpected sight.

“I went to the C villa and saw people stealing stuff from inside,” said Tamir.  “One of the thieves stepped on the legs of someone who was lying on the floor and [the thief] started yelling.” Tamir and others quickly went to the bathroom where they found a tall American on his back breathing very heavily. “Some of the didn’t want to help him. They said ‘just let him stay there and die. He insulted Islam and the Prophet.’” Tamir and six other men carried the American’s body outside C villa. They washed his ash-covered face before taking him to the main entrance where a group of men placed him in a car and headed towards the Benghazi Medical Center. Later, Tamir called Fadil and described the man to him.  “That’s the ambassador,” Fadil replied. Stevens would succumb to smoke inhalation and be pronounced dead at the hospital.

The quick reaction team would return to the annex with the five Diplomatic Security agents from the mission. However, they had not left danger behind. The annex –which by night’s end would be refuge for about 32 Americans — would soon be taking on intense fire.

U.S. reinforcements, however, were on the way. Around 2 a.m., eight Marines sent from the embassy in Tripoli landed at the Benghazi airport. But Libyan officials there initially prevented them from pushing ahead with their rescue mission. “[The Americans] wanted all eight to go to the annex,” said Faruq, a leader of the Libyan Shield Brigade, one of numerous local brigades and tasked that night with coordinating the arrival of the Marines. “But we were told to only allow two.”

The Libyans apparently did not want a bunch of U.S. military men running around their country for fear of causing an uproar among citizens. But the Marines were adamant they would go as a team.  After several back and forth conversations with Libya Shield’s commander, the Libyans finally relented.

But as soon as the Marines solved one problem, they encountered another — they had only GPS coordinates and no address for the annex, which was supposed to be hush-hush in any case. “We couldn’t arrange our forces to go to a place we didn’t know about,” Faruq said, explaining his reluctance to send his own soldiers with the Marines. After another round of logistical squabbling, the Marines finally departed the airport around 2:30 a.m. in two Toyota Land Cruisers. An additional 10-to-15 Libyan security vehicles accompanied them to the annex, which turned out to be approximately 20 minutes away.

When they arrived, they found the Americans at the annex tired and nervous.  Then, around 3 a.m., bullets began hitting just outside the annex. “Mortars started landing.  They hit the roof.  There were several and we were all confused,” said Faruq of the Libyan Shield brigade. “The Marines put on their night vision goggles and took up positions,” said Faruq.  “Some positioned themselves in the doorway and some set up inside.” It was during this attack that former Navy SEAL commandos Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed.

Faruq had decided against bringing a large contingent with him to the annex.  The site “was supposed to be a light foot print and no one thought it was dangerous because it was an unknown safe house,” he said. But gunfire was sending everyone for cover. At about 3:20 a.m., Faruq called the Joint Operations Room at the February 17th Brigade that coordinates the activities of several military and security organizations. Within 15 minutes, more than a hundred security officials arrived at the annex to help secure the area.  Some set up a perimeter one kilometer from the annex. Others occupied the villas around the residence. Finally, a Libyan colonel showed up outside and the Americans prepared to evacuate. They placed the bodies of Doherty, Smith and Woods in a Mercedes and headed to the airport.  But the plane that brought the Marines was too small to carry all the Americans back to Tripoli.  The Marines stayed behind with the three corpses.

At the airport, a Marine told Faruq they had to go to the hospital because there was news that some Libyans had brought Steven’s body there. Two vehicles were sent to retrieve his body and at around 6 a.m. Stevens’ corpse lay next to those of his three comrades.  By 10 a.m., another plane finally arrived to transport the Marines and the dead Americans back to Tripoli. It had been the most lethal attack against U.S. diplomatic facilities since the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing took the lives of 63 people.