By Tony Rennell
Fumbling in the dark, the American ambassador hurriedly pulled on bullet-proof body armour over his blue trousers and T-shirt. A shrill warning siren was sounding and the crash of gunshots could be heard, getting closer by the second.
‘Follow me, sir,’ urged a diplomatic bodyguard, gripping his M4 assault rifle, shouldering an additional pump-action shotgun and looking anxiously around him as they set out along blacked-out corridors. ‘We are under attack.’
It was 9.40pm in the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the second city of strife-torn Libya, a country trying to re-build itself in the aftermath of civil war and the ousting and killing of its mad dictator, Colonel Gaddafi.
The year was 2012 and the date hugely significant for the American and Arab worlds alike — September 11, the anniversary of the 9/11 attack by Islamic terrorists on the Twin Towers in New York.
To mark it, one of the many rogue militia armies that were now ripping Libya apart as the so-called Arab Spring turned sour fired up a mob to launch a murderous assault on this vulnerable U.S. outpost.
It was an attack that would not only cost American lives, but bring embarrassment and humiliation to the Obama White House that it has not been able to shrug off.
Heavily armed and flying the black flags of Al Qaeda, the terrorists arrived en masse at the eight-acre Mission Compound, whose outer defences — manned by local guards of doubtful loyalty — collapsed all too easily in the initial onslaught. A rocket-propelled grenade took out the front door of the ambassadors’ residence, and they were in.
As men poured through the opening, the safety of Ambassador Chris Stevens — who had flown into Benghazi for a week of talks with political leaders, businessmen and officials in the hope of bringing some peace and order to the troubled and violent city — was top priority for the handful of special agents of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service who were guarding him.
Stevens, 52, was a highly respected Arabist, a top-notch diplomat and an acknowledged friend of Libya. He believed fervently that with U.S. help the country would flourish.
But in Libya’s political and religious ferment, that made him a target. The Benghazi mission was a nervy place to be.
It had been set up in a hurry in response to the fast-moving political situation, with the result that basic security measures were far short of the norm in U.S. establishments in the Middle East.
Shockingly, Washington knew this. Just weeks earlier, agents on the ground in Libya had sent an emergency message detailing their fears that the post was under-manned, under-gunned and under-resourced, and was not capable of withstanding a major terrorist attack.
There were, for example, no sprinklers, smoke hoods and anti-fire foam. But nothing had been done, and it was now too late.
At least, though, there was a specially built safe haven at the heart of the main residence building, and it was into this room that the bodyguard bundled Stevens and an aide, 34-year-old Sean Smith, a communications wizard, and locked all three of them in behind its steel mesh gate, with a sense of relief.
‘Package and one guest secure, hunkered down,’ he reported on his hand-held radio to colleagues manning a command centre in a neighbouring barracks building.
All the three could do was wait until rescue arrived. They could only hope that help would reach them before the murderous bunch now ransacking the residence did.
What happened next was, for all the courage of the men involved, a catalogue of disaster and death. The events of that night have now been told for the first time in a new gung-ho, all-guns-blazing account.
As foreign governments debate the merits of strikes on the Assad regime in Syria, the book is a timely reminder of how American intervention in Middle Eastern trouble spots seems doomed to backfire, however well intentioned. In the eyes of fundamentalists in those regions, the U.S. is Satan — an enemy to be attacked and humiliated at any cost.
As Ambassador Stevens sat on the floor in the safe room making calls on his BlackBerry to local leaders pleading in vain for their help, he must have felt his dream of a free, regenerated and peaceful Libya going up in smoke.
Literally smoke, because by now the building was on fire, deliberately set alight by the dozens of armed intruders, some of whom had now reached the safe room and were peering menacingly through the grille.
Inside, the three Americans lay low, quiet and out of sight. The bodyguard — unnamed in the book for security reasons and identified only as Agent A — panned his gun sight at one screaming balaclavaed head after another as they appeared at the grille but held his fire rather than reveal their presence in what was now becoming a rapidly heating oven rather than a haven.
A stifling heat built up within the safe room, as clouds of black, acrid smoke crept in. On his knees, the bodyguard crawled through the choking darkness to what was now the only possible exit — a small iron-grilled window in the adjoining bathroom.
With great difficulty, he heaved it open and pulled himself out onto the roof of the building, signalling to Stevens and Smith to follow, believing they were right behind him. He coughed repeatedly to clear his soot-caked lungs and then stretched his arm back through the window to haul the other two out.
No hand came to meet his. There was no sign of either of them. They were lost in the choking smoke.
Bravely Agent A — his hands already scorched, his lungs hardly able to draw breath — plunged back into the smoke and flames to find them, not just once but five, six times. Each time he re-emerged to gasp a few lungfuls of air, bullets cracked around him from gunmen on the ground.
Frantic at having failed in a diplomatic guard’s number one priority, he yelled into his radio. ‘I don’t have the ambassador,’ he shouted at the embassy compound’s control centre.
The agents there were under siege too, barricaded in and surrounded by hostile fire. Now they gathered their strength, cleared the area outside the control centre with a grenade and then charged out, shooting at anyone who lingered.
Three of them made it across open ground to the residence and onto the roof where a distressed Agent A was still trying to rescue the Ambassador and his aide.
Soaking their shirts in water and wrapping them round their faces, they took over the search for the missing men, both by now certainly unconscious inside the smoke-filled safe room, their lives hanging in the balance.
Mercifully, help was at last coming.
A mile away was a heavily-fortified building used by the CIA for covert intelligence-gathering in Benghazi. Half the staff there were Special Forces veterans — now racing to the embassy, battering their way through road blocks and hails of hostile gunfire in armoured Mercedes 4x4s.
Equipped with full battle kit, they took back control of the Mission Compound, forcing the marauders out. But for how long?
In the streets outside, more gunmen, dissidents and demonstrators were massing, chanting their bloodlust like hyped-up fans at a football match.
‘Today we have attacked the infidels and avenged the honour of Islam,’ a voice screamed through a microphone. ‘Let’s go and finish the job!’
Meanwhile, back inside the safe room, the lifeless body of Sean Smith had at last been found and was carried out. But there was still no sign of Ambassador Stevens.
What if he had been captured? Visions of America’s diplomatic envoy being held for ransom, tortured, beheaded on film even — all recent fates of U.S. citizens who had fallen into jihadist hands — flashed through anxious minds. The search went on.
The mob, though, was pushing at the gates again, firing bullets into the compound, eager for a battle, hundreds of them against a dozen Americans. They swarmed into the grounds in the darkness. U.S. snipers fired, leaving casualties strewn on the manicured lawns, but still the mob came on, an unstoppable tide of hate.
There was no choice left for the Americans. They had to retreat or die.
Leaving without having found Ambassador Stevens was a terrible decision for the diplomatic service agents. Even supposing the man it was their job to protect was dead, there was the gut-wrenching prospect of his body falling into terrorist hands and being dragged through the streets, U.S. pride trampled in the dust.
But that thought had to be put aside. Escape was the only option. Cramming into armoured Land Cruisers, they pushed their way out of the compound and down roads filled with heavily armed men.
They exchanged machine gun fire with the mob and swerved to avoid volleys of grenades. The tyres were torn to shreds as they screamed round corners flat out until they screeched into the safety of the CIA base.
It was over, a chance now to tend their wounds .?.?. or was it?
The insurgents had not given up. If anything, they were more enraged and more determined than ever at having let their quarry get away.
They surrounded the CIA outpost in alarming numbers wielding machine guns and grenade launchers. As explosions rocked its walls, it was in real danger of being overrun.
The defence line was paper thin — just a handful of American snipers in vantage points on the roof as overhead, a U.S. Predator drone cruising backwards and forwards sent back to the defenders vivid images of the sheer scale of the attack being mounted against them.
Not even the seven-man hit squad of trained commandoes that had finally made it by air from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, the capital city, to back up the Americans in Benghazi could swing the situation in their favour.
Short of all 34 of them dying where they stood in a last-ditch Alamo defence, they would have to get out.
Frantically, nervous CIA agents shredded classified files and took sledgehammers to computers and hard drives brimming with secrets, anxious that nothing should fall into enemy hands.
As preparations were made to break out of the compound, another furious attack began, this time with an even deadlier weapon — mortars.
Perched up on a roof, two former Navy Seals, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were picking off the attackers with their Mk 46 automatics when a mortar shell hit their position. Woods died instantly, his friend Doherty seconds later, killed by another mortar round. Shrapnel cut down other defenders.
Dawn was breaking, and in the early morning light the next onslaught could well be final.
The battle was about to be lost, Americans slaughtered, their nation humbled. But the Libyan army saved the day. As the sun rose, Special Forces soldiers from its Military Intelligence section came barrelling in with orders to get the Americans out of the country as quickly as possible. The terrorist mob was driven back.
As the Muslim morning call to prayer echoed around Benghazi, 32 weary survivors packed themselves and crate-loads of CIA equipment into a convoy of vehicles and drove under escort to the airport for a rapid exit from this place of destruction and death. They carried with them the bodies of Smith, Doherty and Woods.
But what of Ambassador Stevens? He had choked to death in the flames of his residence, his body unrecovered by his team.
At the now deserted Mission Complex, looters wandered into the still burning remains of the ambassador’s home. Abandoned weapons, furniture, iPods, mobile phones, the ambassador’s clothes, his luggage, cigars, bottles of water — everything was carried off in triumph.
Eventually they forced their way into the safe room — and there was Stevens’s blackened body. It was carried out, laid on the ground, propped up to be photographed and the pictures flashed around the world to be gawped at.
Much worse indignities could well have been heaped on it. Twenty years earlier, the corpse of an American soldier had been dragged through Mogadishu in Somalia. The photograph was seen all over the world.
Instead, local Libyan men — dressed in jeans and football shirts rather than the jihadists’ uniform of dark shirts and combat trousers — lifted the ambassador’s body into a car to rush it to Benghazi’s main hospital. There doctors worked for 90 minutes in a desperate attempt to resuscitate him.
It was a futile task, but the fact that it was attempted at all in the circumstances is a surprise.
Even now there were Libyans who wanted to distance themselves from the terrorists and send a message to Washington that not everyone in that benighted country was its enemy.
Stevens’s remains were taken to the airport, loaded on a plane and, along with the other three bodies and the survivors, flown out. The Benghazi raid was over — but its aftermath haunts U.S. foreign policy.
In a speech paying tribute to those who died, President Barack Obama was emphatic that the U.S. would not be deterred from its global mission. But his John Wayne confidence in America as the world’s policeman has now backfired.
His allies edge away from intervention in Syria, and U.S. voters show an understandable reluctance for their country’s soldiers and diplomats to put their lives at risk in far off desert nations.
A year on, the Benghazi raid is the focus of bitter contention in the U.S., where accusations are made by senators and conspiracy theorists alike that the Obama administration covered up — and continues to obscure — failings that led to an ambassador and three other Americans dying in such horrendous circumstances.
Why was the attack not anticipated by intelligence sources? Why were warnings ignored that the mission building was inadequate for its job?
Was the response from Washington on the night in question bungled? What precisely did the President know and when? Or did he sleep though the whole thing?
The questions seem even more pointed in the light of allegations that the survivors have allegedly been silenced.
Under this continuing cloud of suspicion, the damage caused by the insurgents in Benghazi that fearful night may sadly end up running far deeper than even the most hardened jihadist fanatic could have imagined.