Lack of strike force impeded Benghazi response
As U.S. Africa Command waited for any order to rescue Americans on Sept. 11 at the besieged consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, it was missing a key unit that the Pentagon gives every regional four-star commander — an emergency strike force.
The new command’s lack of such a unit is another piece in the unfolding Benghazi timeline that shows an overriding theme: As radical Islamic extremism swelled in the chaotic coastal city, U.S. security assets in Libya diminished.
From the State Department’s denial of diplomats’ requests for more security in Libya to Obama administration officials repeatedly saying the military-style attack on the consulate resulted from “spontaneous” protests, the events before, during and after the Benghazi assault reflect the political, diplomatic and military confusion that is post-Gadhafi Libya.
Each U.S. geographic combatant command, whether it be in the Middle East, the Pacific or, in this case, Africa, is entitled to a special operations rapid-response team — a group of Green Berets to perform instant combat in situations like the Islamist militants’ attack on the U.S. Consulate.
But on that day, AfriCom, the Pentagon’s newest geographic combatant command, which is still in the building phase, lacked what is called the “commander in-extremis force,” said a senior special operations official.
“All geographic combatant commands have one allocated to them, except AfriCom,” the senior official said. “AfriCom’s is in the process of being established.”
The gap shows that while North Africa has become a growing battleground for Islamic extremists, the U.S. regional command in charge of operations there is still not at full strength.
“We cannot discuss the availability of specific capabilities in order to protect our operational security,” AfriCom spokesman Benjamin Benson said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, told Fox News that Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads AfriCom, received no request from any government entity to intervene in Benghazi during the seven- to eight-hour fight.
As it turns out, some special operations troops, likely from U.S. European Command, were moved to a naval air station at Sigonella, Sicily, but were never ordered to go farther. The Pentagon has declined to say exactly at what hour they arrived in Sicily or whether the battle was over by then.
Perhaps most important is not the lack of troops going into Benghazi, but what security forces the State Department pulled out of Libya a month before the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his information officer, and two former Navy SEALs.
Signs of trouble in Benghazi
The story begins last winter, when the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli began reporting to Washington about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi.
Mr. Stevens chose to spend much time there, the cradle of the popular uprising that ousted and ultimately killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
As pro-Western Libyans tried to form a fledgling democracy, al Qaeda-linked militant groups, as they have done in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, began emerging to exploit the power vacuum.
“Their presence grows every day,” Army National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Wood would later tell the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “They are certainly more established than we are.”
That winter, Col. Wood commanded a 16-member site security team of Army Green Berets based in Tripoli. His men were in country because they wielded the kind of high-caliber firepower needed to combat militants armed with grenade launchers and mortars.
“Superior weapons and superior tactics,” Col. Wood said. “That’s what the [site security team] brought to the table. Those were the qualities and attributes and the bolstering effect that they added.”
Also troubling for the State Department’s Libyan stations: Neither the embassy nor the Benghazi compound met basic construction standards to protect diplomats.
“That was the major cause of concern, and that was the main physical security issue that we continued to raise,” testified Eric Nordstrom, the top diplomatic security officer in Libya.
By June, the Benghazi compound consisted of one wall and four buildings, and was guarded by up to five of Mr. Nordstrom’s personnel, a few Libyan private security guards and the Libyan February 17 Martyrs Brigade, which lived in a compound barracks and worked out of a nearby CIA annex.
The embassy watched as militants stepped up attacks.
Radical Islamists attacked the International Red Cross building repeatedly. A terrorist placed a homemade bomb at the consulate wall. Even though Libyan guards saw him, his time-delayed explosive went off and blew a huge hole in the wall.
Next, terrorists attacked a convoy transporting the British ambassador. Britain quickly evacuated, leaving the U.S. as the only Western power in Benghazi.
“When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi,” Col. Wood said. “We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi.”
Security requests denied
The colonel and Mr. Nordstrom were fighting a long-distance battle of emails and phone calls with the State Department to maintain a large security presence.
But Charlene Lamb, who was in charge of international programs for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, rejected their requests. State wanted to create a picture of normal operations in Libya.
“We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon,” Ms. Lamb told the committee, noting that five diplomatic security officers were in Benghazi, the number that had been requested.
But further firepower was missing. On July 9, the embassy sent a cable to State seeking at least a 60-day extension for SST and other security personnel. It was denied.
By August, Col. Wood and his three site security teams were out of the country, even though Gen. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, agreed that they could stay as long as they were needed.
Col. Wood said those men could have accompanied the ambassador in Benghazi or responded from Tripoli when the assault occurred.
Also gone were three of the State Department’s mobile security teams requested by Mr. Nordstrom, who left Libya July 26.
Col. Wood said the State Department restricted officers on the mobile security team to training Libyans, not providing security. Still, their absence meant a smaller pool of security personnel able to respond to Benghazi.
Ms. Lamb testified that she “backfilled” to replace team members.
“I made the best decisions I could with the information I had,” she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this month.
Mr. Stevens, a career diplomat who considered his mission in Benghazi as bringing together various tribal factions and Islamic groups, had been reporting to State on increased violence.
In June, he wrote of “Islamic extremism” and al Qaeda flags popping up on government buildings in eastern Libya.
On Sept. 11, in what appears to be his last words to Washington, Mr. Stevens said Libyan security commanders “expressed growing frustration with police and security forces” unable to control Benghazi.
Ms. Lamb said the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi began at 9:40 p.m. local time, or 3:40 p.m. Washington time.
The first messages from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, which said the conflict had begun just after 9 p.m., reached Washington at 4:05 p.m. EDT, when the Pentagon, White House and State Department operation centers would have been fully staffed.
“The diplomatic mission is under attack,” said the embassy email, which was sent to the White House National Security Council office, as well as to the State Department. “The 17th of February militia is providing security support.”
Two hours later, the embassy reported that Ansar al-Shariah,
Libyans examine the gutted U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after a Sept. 11 attack by Islamic militants that left four Americans dead. An Africa Command rapid-response force might have been able to counter the attack.