The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi
By Fred Burton, Samuel M. Katz
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz
All rights reserved.
I proudly announce to the Muslim umma and to the mujahideen ... the news of the martyrdom of the lion of Libya Sheikh Hassan Mohammed Qaed.
— al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a videotape released on September 11, 2012, confirming the U.S. drone strike that killed the Libyan-born al-Qaeda deputy commander and commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Abu Yahya al-Libi
The Hellfire missile arrived without warning and with little preamble. They always did. At just after dawn's first glow on the morning of June 4, 2012, in Pakistan's tribal Waziristan, a CIA Predator drone hovering near its target at twenty thousand feet above the impassable mountain terrain launched four AGM-114P Hellfire II antitank missiles at the turbid hovel where Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al-Qaeda deputy commander, and another fourteen low- and mid-level terrorists were sleeping. The missiles, designed to punch a molten hole through layers of armored steel, turned the mud-and-stone hut into a flaming hole of destruction. The devastation was absolute. Even if the goat farmers who had wandered toward the flaming ruins had years of forensic training among them, scraping what was left of the terrorist leader and his minions off the mud and scorched earth would have required a deft touch. There was no doubt that the primary target had been terminated. The eighteen-pound shaped metal-augmented charge was a sure thing.
Abu Yahya al-Libi was considered a CIA high-value target. There was a ghostlike mystique to him — especially after he had escaped from U.S. extrajudicial detention at Bagram Air Base in northeastern Afghanistan in July 2005, one of the most secured U.S.-run counterterrorism facilities in the world; he was one of the U.S. Department of Defense's most wanted men. Although he was often videotaped in camouflage fatigues, firing his Russian-made AK-74 5.45 mm assault rifle as if he were a gangster with a tommy gun on Chicago's South Side, he was more a politician than a military field commander. Abu Yahya al-Libi was viewed as a visionary policy maker and, in his firebrand sermons, al-Qaeda's most capable salesman. When adorned in sparkling white robes that accentuated his dark eyes and North African features, he resembled a fierce warrior fighting his way across a desert battlefield. In an interview with The New York Times, Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the CIA, claimed about al-Libi, "He's a warrior. He's a poet. He's a scholar. He's a pundit. He's a military commander. And he's a very charismatic, young, brash, rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement."
The self-professed al-Qaeda global ambassador had been an instrumental player in the spreading of the jihadist network to new venues and battlefields. He had achieved considerable success in his native North Africa in the Global War on Terror vacuum of the Arab Spring. In posting a $1 million reward for information leading to al-Libi's capture, the Web site of the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service Rewards for Justice Program claimed that "al-Libi was a key motivator in the global jihadist movement and his messages convey a clear threat to U.S. persons or property worldwide." When the CIA finally caught up with al-Libi, financially speaking the targeted killing was a frugal investment of taxpayer dollars: the four Hellfire missiles cost under $280,000.
There was always blowback when such a senior terrorist commander was targeted, and the question of retaliation wasn't as much an "if," as it was a "when" and a "where." Al-Libi's name, the translation meaning "the Libyan," should have provided intelligence specialists throughout the Beltway with some sort of inkling.
On the morning of September 11, 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the most destructive terrorist attack in history, the al-Qaeda commander Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri formally confirmed the martyrdom of his Libyan-border deputy. The terrorist leader's footage was released early in the morning in Pakistan, just as Washington, D.C., was going to bed.
The Global Protectors in a World at War
Midnight September 10–11, 2012, arrived with an exhausted dread at the Diplomatic Security Service Command Center, or DS/CC, on the ********** floor in a nondescript building in the Virginia suburbs. As the agents in the evening tour packed up their gear and prepared to head out for the traffic-free drive back to their homes in northern Virginia, a few words were exchanged with the special agents coming in the late tour. For many years, the DS/CC was staffed 24/7 by ***** agents. Now the day shift alone had grown to ***** to meet the demands of an ever-changing, ever more violent world. The midnight shift was always a harsh one, as the garbage cans, filled to capacity with empty Starbucks coffee cups, would attest. Eyes were sometimes groggy, tempers short. Although the nation's capital was asleep, with the halls of power silent in a town never quite known for quiet, the world beyond was abuzz with activity. Midnight along the Beltway was midday in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur; as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were winding down their nightly outgoing, exchanging distant views on the presidential election, a new workday was well under way in Kabul, Islamabad, and Doha. As American flags waved proudly in front of the White House and the Capitol under a dark autumn sky, they also flew stoically in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt.
The fluid and rapidly deteriorating situation in Libya was also monitored by the Diplomatic Security Service and State Department officials at the Operations Center, known as State Ops, located on the seventh floor inside Main State at Foggy Bottom. The center was purely antiseptic and looked like a thousand other government offices inside anonymous buildings that were either owned by or rented to the federal government. It was painted in a yellowish-taupe scheme and decorated with television monitors that covered major 24/7 news networks from around the world. A narrow rectangular digital clock spanned across a part of the room, pinpointing the times in capitals around the globe. Cubicles, with computer stations, provided special agents from the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service and other Foreign Service professionals the means to react to any developing global crisis.
All over the world, and supported from Washington, D.C., the Diplomatic Security Service (DS) was at work protecting the 252 embassies and consulates. For the most part, even in a world at war, the command centers monitored day-to-day events without the need for a remarkable response. Certain days, however, always brought the staffers at these command centers to realize the importance and volatility of the world at large. The anniversary of the September 11 attacks was always one such day.
Ever since that horrific morning eleven years earlier, September 11 was a day of remembrance and foreboding for members of federal law enforcement. Agencies like the FBI geared up — with state and local law enforcement — to prevent an anniversary strike against the United States. Members of the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and DS went on full alert to prevent terrorists hoping to seize on the anniversary to symbolically strike at U.S. interests overseas.
DS was not the most widely known of federal law enforcement agencies; few were familiar with its existence, and even fewer — including many in the State Department — understood what it did. It traces its roots to World War I, when the Office of Security for the State Department was established in 1916 as a federal counterintelligence agency to deal with the activity of foreign espionage agents on American soil, but it soon expanded to become the security arm of the Department of State.
For many years, the Office of Security was known simply as SY. Agents began traveling overseas to safeguard embassies and coordinate their efforts with marine security contingents at diplomatic posts around the world. In Vietnam, SY faced enormous challenges as the beleaguered force of diplomatic security hunkered down inside a war zone. On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, surprising the Americans and the People's Army of Vietnam with a massive multipronged invasion. The mission was to destroy the will of the South Vietnamese and American people, and diplomatic signals had hoodwinked the Americans into believing the North Vietnamese wanted peace. The Communists used the New Year's celebration as cover for action and mingled Vietcong (VC) operatives among the crowds. The size and scope of the Tet offensive was overwhelming. The city of Saigon was attacked along with thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals. Altogether, an estimated eighty-four thousand North Vietname Army (NVA) and VC guerrillas were used. In Saigon, the targets were the Presidential Palace, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Joint Staff Command building, and the National Broadcasting Station, along with one more very special target.
At 0245 hours, the U.S. embassy wall on Thong Nhat Boulevard was breached in an explosive charge by nineteen Vietcong commandos and sappers, dressed in civilian clothing. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker was inside his residence at the time and secretly evacuated by SY agents and Marine Security guards (who worked under the command of SY agents); he was hidden in the SY regional security officer's house. Steve Bray, a U.S. Marine assigned to SY for protection duties on the ambassador, recalled the chaos of the night and the actions by SY to save the U.S. ambassador's life:
The VC placed a satchel charge against the exterior perimeter wall and blew a hole in it which they used to penetrate the Embassy compound. They killed the American MP's located on the inner perimeter execution style. Intel sharing among U.S. Agencies was even worse than it is today. The VC Sapper Team went to the Deputy Ambassador's Residence by mistake. The Deputy Ambassador was Samuel D. Berger at that time. LBJ had called him (Berger) back to Texas for consultation and no one was at residence when the VC Sapper Team arrived at the wrong address. They had the wrong location but thought it was Ambassador Bunker's residence. SY Agent Bob Furey went through the hole blown in the Embassy perimeter wall by the VC with his Thompson submachine gun to help Leo Crampsey. Leo, Bob, along with a few MSGs on the Embassy grounds and some 716th BN MPs on the outer perimeter defended the Embassy, preventing the VC takeover of the Chancery. General Westmoreland did not send in supporting U.S. Military assistance until first light.* By that time, Leo, Bob and MSGs had secured the compound.2
Though this experience might have caused others to shy away from future missions, Bray went on to become an SY agent; that is the kind of person attracted to SY.
The last civilians evacuated by helicopter from the rooftop of the American embassy in Vietnam in 1975 were SY agents.
The State Department's system of diplomatic security remained a small and fairly under-resourced, undervalued entity until terrorist attacks in Lebanon and other locations in the Middle and Near East. Attacks against American diplomats and diplomatic facilities during this period were widespread. On March 2, 1973, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Cleo A. Noel Jr., and the deputy chief of mission, George Curtis Moore, were killed in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September Organization. On February 14, 1979, Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was killed during a failed kidnapping attempt. On November 4, 1979, Iranian "students" seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran; in the subsequent crisis fifty-two Americans were held captive for 444 days. On November 22, 1979, a mob set fire to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, resulting in the death of a Marine Security guard. On April 18, 1983, Hezbollah terrorists launched a suicide truck bomber against the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon; the attack, believed to have targeted the U.S. intelligence community in country, resulted in the deaths of sixty-three people (fourteen Americans were killed, including the Near East Intelligence Officer, Robert Ames, and most of the CIA's assets in country) and the wounding of scores more (a year later, on September 20, 1984, twenty-three would be killed when the U.S. embassy annex across town in the Christian eastern half of the city was bombed). On December 3, 1983, a Hezbollah suicide truck bomber attempted to destroy the U.S. embassy in Kuwait City, Kuwait, killing five.
In 1985, Secretary of State George P. Shultz ordered the convening of the Advisory Panel on Overseas Security to respond to critical threats American diplomats and diplomatic facilities encountered around the world. The panel, chaired by the retired admiral Bobby Ray Inman, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, reviewed the litany of tactics and tools that terrorists had employed in the past decade's attacks and what measures could be conceived to mitigate future threats. One of the primary findings of the Inman panel was the need for an expanded security force to protect American diplomatic posts overseas. On August 27, 1986, a new State Department security force and law enforcement agency, the Diplomatic Security Service, was formed to replace SY; DS was part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. According to the panel's findings, "the new Diplomatic Security Service must incorporate the best features and attributes of professional law enforcement in order that it will become capable of providing the level of competence that will be required in United States diplomatic and consular missions around the world in the face of the expected terrorist threat environment."
Another important finding to emerge from the Inman panel was its focus on physical security enhancements for embassies and consulates. As a result, the U.S. State Department was one of the first — and remains one of the few — foreign diplomatic services to implement physical security protocols to prevent catastrophic attacks. These force protection specifications, unique in the world of diplomatic security, included blast-proofing breakthroughs in architecture to mitigate the devastating yield of an explosion or other methods of attack, including rocket and grenade fire. New embassies would be built with a minimum of a hundred feet of setback to prevent suicide truck bombers from ramming their explosive-laden vehicles into the actual buildings, as had been perpetrated in the West Beirut bombing. These new embassies, known as Inman buildings, incorporated anti-ram walls and fences, gates, vehicle barriers, and ballistic window film and supervised local guard forces to create impregnable fortresses that withstand massive explosions and coordinated attempts to breach an embassy's defenses.
Long before the term "global war on terror" entered the vernacular, DS was one of the sole U.S. law enforcement agencies fighting terrorists overseas in the effort to safeguard American embassies and consulates. Special Agents Daniel Emmett O'Connor and Ronald Albert Lariviere were killed on December 21, 1988, on board Pan Am Flight 103, bombed by Libyan intelligence agents and Palestinian terrorists; two special agents assigned to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, captured Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and DS agents brought back the perpetrators of the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Dar es Salaam so that they could stand trial in a federal courthouse in Manhattan.
The September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States forever changed DS. The service, whose ranks had been understaffed in its domestic and global mission for years, nearly doubled its manpower after the 2001 terrorist attacks; today, the agency boasts two thousand special agents. DS personnel suddenly found themselves frontline warriors and counterterrorist operators; overseas, they found themselves outside their traditional comfort box of supervising the Marine Security Guard contingent and security programs and were now assisting and protecting covert aspirations of the intelligence community, fielding large contractor forces, and harnessing military support in nation-building endeavors. In the AfPak (Afghanistan and Pakistan) theater the Diplomatic Security Service fielded more agents than it did in most of its domestic U.S. field offices. There were more than *** ******* special agents assigned to the behemoth fortress that became the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Traditional protection tasks were dramatically redefined in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. DS special agents hung up their Ralph Lauren suits and Rockport lace-ups for desert khakis, battle rattle, and an M4 **** ** carbine close at hand. The Diplomatic Security Service went to war after 9/11. Two special agents, Edward J. Seitz and Stephen Eric Sullivan, were killed in separate rocket attacks in Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Under Fire by Fred Burton, Samuel M. Katz. Copyright © 2013 Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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