Libyan witnesses recount organized Benghazi attack
By PAUL SCHEMM and MAGGIE MICHAEL Associated Press October 27, 2012 6:42PM
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens as President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Sept. 12 at the White House about the killing of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, at the American consulate in Benghazi. | Evan Vucci~AP
TIMELINE OF COMMENTS ON BENGHAZI ATTACK
WASHINGTON — Here is a timeline of comments by the administration and Libyan officials on what they thought happened in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, beginning the night of the assault and continuing through September.
Republicans have criticized the administration for its description of the attack, suggesting they insisted it was a protest over a film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad because acknowledging it was a terror attack would have affected the presidential campaign. The administration says it gave the information it had, as it became available, and has strongly objected to the accusation that its messaging was politically motivated.
Sept. 11, 2012: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a statement on the attack on Benghazi, notes that “some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.”
Sept. 12: From the Rose Garden, President Barack Obama calls Benghazi an “outrageous and shocking attack.” He says the U.S. rejects efforts to denigrate religious beliefs of others, but that there is no justification “to this type of senseless violence.” He adds that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation . . .” Later, at a campaign event in Las Vegas, Obama sends a message to “anybody who would do us harm: No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.” Clinton, in a statement, condemns what she calls a “vicious and violent attack.” She says later, “This was an attack by a small and savage group — not the people or Government of Libya.” She says that “as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace.”
Sept. 13: At a campaign event in Colorado, Obama again says, “To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.” In Washington, Clinton addresses the “video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries.” She later returns to the “small and savage group in Benghazi” and says again “some seek to justify this behavior as a response to inflammatory, despicable material posted on the Internet.” In Libya, Wanis el-Sharef, then eastern Libya’s deputy interior minister, said the attacks were suspected to have been timed to mark the 9/11 anniversary and that the militants used civilians protesting an anti-Islam film as cover for their action. Infiltrators within the security forces may have tipped off militants to the safe house location, he said.
Sept. 14: At the repatriation ceremony for the victims of the attacks, Clinton calls Benghazi a “heavy assault” and adds: “We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with.”
Sept. 15: In his weekly address, Obama stresses that the U.S. “has a profound respect for people of all faiths” and rejects the denigration of Islam. “Yet there is never any justification for violence,” he says. “There is no excuse for attacks on our embassies and consulates.”
Sept. 16: U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, goes on morning shows at NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Based on the administration’s best information, she says, the Benghazi attack was a “spontaneous — not a premeditated — response” to the anti-video protests in Cairo. A small number of protesters came to the consulate “and then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons,” she said. Rice called the attack a “direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, that the U.S. government had nothing to do with.” She said the U.S. had no information at the time “that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.” In Libya, interim President Mohammed el-Megarif said: “It was planned, definitely. It was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago. And they were planning this criminal act since their arrival.”
Sept. 18: Clinton says U.S. and Libya are working closely together to bring to justice those who “murdered” the four Americas in Benghazi. She notes that in a number of places where protests have turned violent, “we are seeing the hand of extremists who are trying to exploit people’s inflamed passions for their own agendas.” She cites Clapper’s assessment that the U.S. had no actionable intelligence that an attack in Benghazi was planned or imminent.
Sept. 19: Matthew Olsen, the national counterterrorism center director, tells the Senate committee on homeland security and government affairs that the Benghazi events were a “terrorist attack.”
Sept. 20: At a town hall event in Miami, Obama says what we’ve seen over the last week-and-a-half “is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the prophet Muhammad. And this is obviously something that then is used as an excuse by some to carry out inexcusable violent acts directed at Westerners or Americans.” He says the U.S. is investigating, and that the circumstances differ in each country. But, he adds, “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.”
Sept. 21: Clinton calls Benghazi a “terrorist attack.”
Sept. 26: At a U.N. event focusing on Africa’s Sahel region, Clinton says al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups “have launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries.” She says terrorists are “working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions underway in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.”
Oct. 26: Obama administration officials defend their response to the attack amid new claims that the White House failed to send help quickly enough as militants overran the mission. In response to a report alleging that security officers working for the CIA in Benghazi heard the attack but were twice told to wait before rushing to the compound, CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood says the CIA “reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi.”
Updated: October 27, 2012 7:26PM
TRIPOLI, Libya — It began around nightfall on Sept. 11 with about 150 bearded gunmen, some wearing the Afghan-style tunics favored by Islamic militants, sealing off the streets leading to the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They set up roadblocks with pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, according to witnesses.
The trucks bore the logo of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful local group of Islamist militants who worked with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi, the main city in eastern Libya and birthplace of the uprising last year that ousted Moammar Gadhafi after a 42-year dictatorship.
There was no sign of a spontaneous protest against an American-made movie denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. But a lawyer passing by the scene said he saw the militants gathering around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film. Within an hour or so, the assault began, guns blazing as the militants blasted into the compound.
One of the consulate’s private Libyan guards said masked militants grabbed him and beat him, one of them calling him “an infidel protecting infidels who insulted the prophet.”
The witness accounts gathered by the Associated Press give a from-the-ground perspective for the sharply partisan debate in the U.S. over the attack that left U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. They corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault. But they also suggest the militants may have used the film controversy as a cover for the attack.
The ambiguity has helped fuel the election-time bickering in the United States ever since.
The Obama administration has sent out muddled messages whether it was a planned attack or a mob protest that got out of control. A day after the attack, President Barack Obama referred to “acts of terror.”
He told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview aired the following Sunday that he believed those involved “were looking to target Americans from the start.”
Within 24 hours of the attack, both the embassy in Tripoli and the CIA station chief sent word to Washington that it was a planned militant attack. Still, days later, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said the attack began as a spontaneous protest over the film.
Republicans, embroiled in a heated presidential campaign, seized on the confusion. They have accused the Obama administration of being hesitant to call it a “terrorist attack” linked to al-Qaida because that would weaken one of Obama’s key campaign selling points — that under his watch, al-Qaida had been weakened and Osama bin Laden had been killed..
As that debate roiled, the actual events — and their meaning — became somewhat skewed in the mouths of politicians. One assumption often made in the back-and-forth is that if the attack was planned, then it must have been linked to al-Qaida.
Ansar al-Shariah, the group whose members are suspected in the attack, is made up of militants with an al-Qaida-like ideology, but it is not clear whether it has any true ties to the terror organization. Made up mainly of veterans of last year’s civil war, it is one of the many powerful, heavily armed militias that operate freely in Libya and in Benghazi, while government control remains weak. Some Benghazi officials have praised Ansar al-Shariah for helping keep order in the city, even as they note its jihadi ideology.
With its arsenal of weapons, the group is capable of carrying out such an attack on the consulate on its own and even on relatively short notice. Islamist militias in Benghazi had in previous months threatened to attack the compound.
U.S. officials say they are still investigating whether there is an al-Qaida connection. They say members of Ansar al-Shariah called members of al-Qaida’s branch in North Africa outside of Libya and boasted of the attack. The administration has even said it is prepared to carry out drone strikes against the branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, if a link is proven. But the officials also acknowledge the calls alone do not yet prove AQIM was involved.
A day after the Benghazi attack, an unidentified Ansar al-Shariah spokesman said the militia was not involved “as an organization” — leaving open the possibility members were involved. He praised the attack as a popular “uprising” sparked by the anti-Islam film, further propagating the image of a mob attack against the consulate.
So far, the attackers’ motives are open to speculation.
Yasser el-Sirri, a former Egyptian militant who runs the Islamic Observation Center in London closely tracking jihadi groups, said the attack “had nothing to do with the film but it was a coincidence that served the [militants’] purpose.”
He thinks the ambassador was the target and the attackers may have been inspired by an al-Qaida call to avenge the death of a top Libyan jihadist on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001. But he offered no firm evidence that was the motive.
The news trickled out slowly the night of the attack, with initial reports overshadowed by the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by protesters angry over the film. It was only the next morning that Stevens’ death was confirmed.
On the day of the attack and the next day, the Associated Press referred to it as a mob attack, based on Libyan officials’ comment that there was a significant unarmed protest at the time. In reporting on the following days, AP referred to it as an “armed attack” and detailed its organized nature.
Over the past week, the AP has gathered accounts from five witnesses, including one of the embassy guards and several people living next door to the consulate compound who were present when the militants first moved in. Most spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals for talking about the attack.
The neighbors all described the militants setting up checkpoints around the compound about 8 p.m. The State Department’s timeline says the attack itself began at about 9:40 p.m.
Khaled al-Haddar, a lawyer who passed by the scene as he headed to his nearby home, said he saw the fighters gathering a few youths from among passers-by and urged them to chant against the film.
“I am certain they had planned to do something like this, I don’t know if it was hours or days, but it was definitely planned,” al-Haddar said. “From the way they set up the checkpoints and gathered people, it was very professional.”
The guard said he saw no protesters. He heard a few shouts of “God is great,” then a barrage of automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades began, along with barrages from heavy machine guns mounted on trucks.
The attackers set fire to the main consulate building. Stevens and another staffer, caught inside amid the confusion, died of smoke inhalation.
The attack came from the front and the side. A neighbor whose house is on the side of the consulate compound said militants with their faces wrapped in scarves were attacking.
Because of the checkpoints, “It felt like our neighborhood was occupied, no one could get out or in,” he said.
The effectiveness of the roadblocks was later revealed in the State Department’s account of the evacuation. It described how the rescue force came under heavy fire and grenade attacks as they tried to leave the consulate area.
They evacuated staffers to a security compound across town, where they continued to come under fire. A precision mortar hit the compound’s building at 4 a.m., killing two other Americans.
Michael reported from Cairo. Osama Alfitory in Benghazi contributed to this report.