Photos Loading
previous next
  • Mohammad Hannon / ASSOCIATED PRESS

    FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2012 file photo, a Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. Consulate, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. officials tell The Associated Press that the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within 24 hours of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a mob upset about an American-made, anti-Muslim movie. It is unclear whether anyone outside the CIA saw the cable at that point or how high up in the CIA the information went. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

  • J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

    J. Scott Applewhite Associated Press Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fires back during contentious questioning Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She seemed near tears when addressing the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and others in the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

  • J. Christopher Stevens died in the Sept. 11 raid on the consulate in Benghazi.

  • 10) "This was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. . . . It was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video."

    - Ambassador Susan Rice incorrectly blaming an anti-Islam video for inciting an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

  • AFP

    An armed man waves his rifle amid flames inside the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. The attack led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Deadly mix in Benghazi: False allies, crude video

Published: Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 - 6:26 pm

BENGHAZI, Libya -- A boyish-looking U.S. diplomat was meeting for the first time with the Islamist leaders of eastern Libya's most formidable militias.

It was Sept. 9, 2012. Gathered on folding chairs in a banquet hall by the Mediterranean, the Libyans warned of rising threats against Americans from extremists in Benghazi. One militia leader, with a long beard and mismatched military fatigues, mentioned time in exile in Afghanistan. A U.S. guard discreetly touched his gun.

"Since Benghazi isn't safe, it is better for you to leave now," Mohamed al-Gharabi, leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade, later recalled telling the Americans. "I specifically told the Americans myself that we hoped that they would leave Benghazi as soon as possible."

Yet as the militiamen snacked on Twinkie-style cakes with their American guests, they also gushed about their gratitude for President Barack Obama's support in their uprising against Moammar Gadhafi. They emphasized that they wanted to build a partnership with the United States, especially in the form of more investment. They specifically asked for Benghazi outlets of McDonald's and KFC.

The diplomat, David McFarland, a former congressional aide who had never before met with a Libyan militia leader, left feeling agitated, according to colleagues. But the meeting did not shake his faith in the prospects for deeper involvement in Libya. Two days later, he summarized the meeting in a cable to Washington, describing a mixed message from the militia leaders.

Despite "growing problems with security," he wrote, the fighters wanted the United States to become more engaged "by 'pressuring' American businesses to invest in Benghazi."

The cable, dated Sept. 11, 2012, was sent over the name of McFarland's boss, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Later that day, Stevens was dead, killed with three other Americans in Benghazi in the most significant attack on U.S. property in 11 years, since Sept. 11, 2001.

The cable was a last token of months of American misunderstandings and misperceptions about Libya and especially Benghazi, many fostered by shadows of the earlier Sept. 11 attack. The United States waded deeply into post-Gadhafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially al-Qaida. It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias the Americans had taken for allies.

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that al-Qaida or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Gadhafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting U.S. aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the U.S. involvement in Syria's civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating al-Qaida may distract from safeguarding U.S. interests.

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. U.S. officials briefed on the U.S. criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Gadhafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person CIA station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Gadhafi.

To this day, some militia leaders offer alibis for Abu Khattala. All resist quiet U.S. pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. In the spring, one of Libya's most influential militia leaders sought to make him a kind of local judge.

Fifteen months after Stevens' death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video, which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Obama's national security adviser.

The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by al-Qaida to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of al-Qaida's role to avoid undermining the president's claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by al-Qaida, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to U.S. interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.

Abu Khattala had become well known in Benghazi for his role in the killing of a rebel general, and then for declaring that his fellow Islamists were insufficiently committed to theocracy. He made no secret of his readiness to use violence against Western interests. One of his allies, the leader of Benghazi's most overtly anti-Western militia, Ansar al-Shariah, boasted a few months before the attack that his fighters could "flatten" the U.S. Mission. Surveillance of the U.S. compound appears to have been underway at least 12 hours before the assault started.

The violence, though, also had spontaneous elements. Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of others joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the U.S. compound had shot Libyan protesters. Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many U.S. officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras.

The Benghazi-based CIA team had briefed McFarland and Stevens as recently as the day before the attack. But the U.S. intelligence efforts in Libya concentrated on the agendas of the biggest militia leaders and the handful of Libyans with suspected ties to al-Qaida, several officials who received the briefings said. Like virtually all briefings over that period, the one that day made no mention of Abu Khattala, Ansar al-Shariah or the video ridiculing Islam, even though Egyptian satellite television networks popular in Benghazi were already spewing outrage against it.

Members of the local militia groups the Americans called on for help proved unreliable, even hostile. The fixation on al-Qaida may have distracted experts from more imminent threats. Those now look like intelligence failures.

More broadly, Stevens, like his bosses in Washington, believed that the United States could turn a critical mass of the fighters it helped oust Gadhafi into reliable friends. He died trying.

RISE OF A MILITIA LEADER

Tall and paunchy with a gaptoothed smile and a graying beard that forked at his chest, Abu Khattala grew up in el-Leithi, the Benghazi neighborhood named for the River of Oblivion in Greek mythology and known for a high concentration of militant Islamists. He spent most of his adult life in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, jailed for his Islamist extremism.

At 42, he has never completed high school or married. He earns a modest living as a construction contractor in blue Dickies coveralls, and lives with his mother in a house decorated with a vase of plastic roses in its living room.

In several hours of interviews, including ones conducted in the days before he became a prime suspect in the assault, Abu Khattala said he had no connections to al-Qaida. But he never hid his admiration for its vision.

"The enmity between the American government and the peoples of the world is an old case," he said. "Why is the United States always trying to use force to implement its agendas?"

Muslims and Christians, he later argued, were fighting an inexorable war. "The problem is in the nature of religions," he said. "There is always hostility between the religions."

Unlike other Libyans, Abu Khattala expressed no gratitude for the U.S. role in the NATO air campaign that toppled Gadhafi. If NATO had not intervened, "God would have helped us," he said, insisting, "We know the United States was working with both sides" and considering "splitting up the country."

Abu Khattala was a loner and a contrarian, even among fellow Islamists. A self-described jihadi commander who spent years in prison with Abu Khattala called him unstable. "If all the Libyan people said, 'We don't want the Americans,' Abu Khattala will say, 'Bring back the Americans!'" the commander said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, a member of Parliament from Benghazi close to many hard-line Islamists, who spent 22 years in Abu Salim, said, "Even in prison, he was always alone."

He added: "He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don't think he is 100 percent mentally fit. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?"

But when the revolt against Gadhafi broke out in Benghazi, Abu Khattala's years in Abu Salim became an attractive credential. Young men raced to find tough-talking sheikhs they could follow into battle.

"Teenagers came running around him just like they came running around me," said Abdel Bassett Shihaibi, 44, who fought in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. "'Sheikh, sheikh, did you know al-Qaida? Did you know Osama bin Laden? How do we fight?'" Shihaibi recalled their asking.

Abu Khattala "seemed like a tough guy" and "very disciplined," one teenage Islamist fighter recounted.

Abu Khattala formed his own militia of perhaps two dozen fighters, naming it Obeida Ibn Al Jarra for an early Islamic general. And he stood out for his fearlessness in the early days of the uprising against Gadhafi in spring 2011, helping to defend the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya just as the United States, Britain, France and other NATO countries were weighing steps to support the rebels. Abu Khattala became notorious across Benghazi when a group of Islamist militia leaders decided to "arrest" Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, the main commander of the rebel movement, now backed by NATO.

Younes had been Gadhafi's interior minister before he defected to join the uprising, and he was viewed in the West as a crucial professional leader for a motley movement known to include extremists. But he had also led crackdowns on Islamists, and they suspected him of a double-cross.

After Islamists sent a team to take the general to an impromptu judicial inquiry in July 2011, his captors held him overnight in the headquarters of Abu Khattala's brigade. The bodies of Younes and two of his aides were found on a roadside the next day, riddled with bullets.

There is no evidence that Abu Khattala himself pulled the trigger. But because the death occurred while the general was in his brigade "he became a boogeyman" across Benghazi, said al-Gharabi, leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade. "People started to fear him."

Abu Khattala appeared to enjoy his infamy, doing little to dispel the rumors about him. When the Islamist-dominated militias reorganized into a centralized coalition, he rejected it because it supported the secular, Western-backed provisional government instead of demanding a theocracy. He pulled back from the front.

"He thinks he owns God and everyone else is an infidel," said Fawzi Bukatef, leader of the broader rebel coalition.

But Abu Khattala was not alone in his hard-line views. In spring 2012, eight months after Gadhafi's death, Western diplomats were focused on Libya's first parliamentary election, a crucial test of the country's hopes of a transition to democracy.

But some in Benghazi had other ideas, and put them on parade.

On a June afternoon, Abu Khattala joined a column of as many as 200 pickup trucks mounted with artillery as they drove through downtown Benghazi under the black flags of militant Islam.

Some trucks came from outside Benghazi. Others bore the markings of the city's major militias, the groups ostensibly allied with the government and effectively in control of the city. Among them were February 17, Libya Shield and the Supreme Security Committee.

Participants described the parade as a demonstration of their opposition to democracy, calling it a violation of their vision of Islamic law. The event was also the public debut of Ansar al-Shariah, a group of as many as 200 militants who, like Abu Khattala, had broken away from the other militias in protest of their support for elections.

Western diplomats who watched said they were stunned by the scale and weaponry of the display.

"It was like they were coming down out of the mountains," said a Western diplomat who watched the parade, "except that they were not. They were already there."

A SHAKY OPTIMISM

Stevens always saw the best in Libya. He had gladly accepted the role of U.S. liaison to the rebels at the start of the uprising. And in April 2011 he chose to sail into Benghazi on a Greek cargo ship instead of taking the easier land route from Egypt, just to savor the romance of his arrival in a free Libya.

An experienced Arabist with previous postings in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Stevens, then 52, was among the most influential voices in U.S. policy toward Libya. He helped shape the Obama administration's conviction that it could work with the rebels, even those previously hostile to the West, to build a friendly, democratic government.

The rebels, including the Islamists, were eager to befriend the U.S. envoy. Gadhafi "was saying the West was supporting these 'al-Qaida' terrorists," said Ashraf Ben Ismail, a wealthy businessman, so he invited Stevens and several Islamist brigade leaders to a meeting in his spacious salon to dispel those fears. All attested to their support for building a modern, democratic Libya. (The more hard-line Islamist rebels declined to attend.)

Still, Stevens and other Americans knew Benghazi had a history of violence against Western diplomats. In 1967, a U.S. Consulate there was ransacked and burned by a mob angry about U.S. support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli war. In 2006, a mob burned down Italy's consulate because a Cabinet minister in Rome had worn a shirt mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

By summer 2012, a new pattern of hit-and-run attacks against Western interests was emerging. There were three attacks in Benghazi involving small explosives that locals used for fishing, two on the U.S. compound and a third near a U.N. convoy.

Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah, told The Washington Post that he disapproved of attacking Western diplomats, but he added, "If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it."

After a rocket-propelled grenade seriously wounded a guard in the British ambassador's convoy, the British began limiting their presence in Benghazi to day trips, depositing their vehicles and weapons inside the U.S. compound at night before flying back to Tripoli, the capital.

But the Americans remained optimistic. Taking stock of the deteriorating security situation on Aug. 8, 2012, a cable titled "The Guns of August" and signed by Stevens struck an understanding tone about the absence of effective policing.

It noted that Libyans were wary about the imposition of a strong security apparatus so soon after they expunged Gadhafi's. "A diverse group of independent actors" -- including criminals and "former regime elements" as well as "Islamist extremists" -- was exploiting the vacuum, the cable said. But it found no signs of an organized campaign against the West.

"What we are going through -- and what people here are resolved to get through -- is a confluence rather than a conspiracy," the cable concluded.

The Americans had another reason to feel secure: the team of at least 20 people from the CIA operating out of an unmarked Benghazi compound known as "the Annex" that was about a half-mile southeast of the mission.

Some were highly skilled commandos. "I knew the backup guys at the Annex, who were quite heavily trained and equipped," said an Obama administration official who visited in the months before the attack.

In addition to buying up weapons spilled out during the revolt, the team was assigned to gather intelligence about anti-Western terrorists and the big militia leaders. But there were hundreds of small brigades, affiliations were fluid and overlapping, and the agents often found themselves turning to Stevens for advice because he seemed to know the militia leaders better than any other U.S. expert.

Despite his expertise and the CIA's presence, though, "there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests," a State Department investigation into the mission attack later concluded.

The CIA kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to al-Qaida. Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company run by bin Laden.

Qumu had been apprehended in Pakistan in 2001 and detained for six years at Guantánamo Bay before returning home to Derna, a coastal city near Benghazi known for a high concentration of Islamist extremists.

But neither Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the U.S. Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said. "We heard a lot about Sufian bin Qumu," said one U.S. diplomat in Libya at the time. "I don't know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah."

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

The more moderate leaders of the big militias developed close ties to the Westerners.

At least one Islamist militia leader liked to play basketball at the British compound. Bukatef of the February 17 Brigade was a fluent English speaker who visited the U.S. compound in Benghazi so often that "it was like he was my best friend," one diplomat joked.

"We thought we were sufficiently close to them," said one Western diplomat who was in Benghazi not long before the attack. "We all thought that if anything threatening was happening, that they would tip us off."

A State Department review later found "a tendency on the part of policy, security and other U.S. government officials to rely heavily on the probability of warning intelligence." It called the Benghazi attack "a stark reminder" of the dangers that entailed.

A FUSE IS LIT

"Innocence of Muslims" purported to be an online trailer for a film about the mistreatment of Christians in contemporary Egypt. But it included bawdy historical flashbacks that derided the Prophet Muhammad. Someone dubbed it into Arabic around the beginning of September 2012, and a Cairo newspaper embellished the news by reporting that a Florida pastor infamous for burning the Quran was planning to debut the film on the 11th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Then, on Sept. 8, a popular Islamist preacher lit the fuse by screening a clip of the video on the ultraconservative Egyptian satellite channel El Nas. U.S. diplomats in Cairo raised the alarm in Washington about a growing backlash, including calls for a protest outside their embassy.

No one mentioned it to the U.S. diplomats in Libya. But Islamists in Benghazi were watching. Egyptian satellite networks like El Nas and El Rahma were widely available in Benghazi. "It is Friday morning viewing," popular on the day of prayer, said one young Benghazi Islamist who turned up at the compound during the attack, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

By Sept. 9, a popular eastern Libyan Facebook page had denounced the film. On the morning of Sept. 11, even some secular political activists were posting calls online for a protest that Friday, three days away.

Hussein Abu Hamida, acting chief of Benghazi's informal police force, saw the growing furor and feared new violence against Western interests. He conferred with Abdul Salam Bargathi of the Preventive Security Brigade, an Islamist militia with a grandiose name, each recalled separately, and they increased security outside a U.N. office. But they said nothing to the Americans.

Reports of the video were just beginning to spread on Sept. 9 when McFarland, then the officer normally in charge of politics and economics at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, had his meeting with the Benghazi militia leaders. Among them were some of the same men who had greeted Stevens when he arrived in Benghazi at the start of the revolt, including al-Gharabi, 39, a heavyset former Abu Salim inmate who ran a local sandwich truck before becoming the leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati. Another was Wissam bin Hamid, also 39, a slim and slightly hunched mechanic known for his skill with American cars who by then had become the leader of Libya Shield, seen as one of the strongest militias in Libya.

In an interview, al-Gharabi said he had known about the rage in Egypt over the video, but, "We did not know if it was going to reach us here."

McFarland seemed most concerned about the big militia leaders. "'How do the revolutionaries feel about having relationships with Western countries? What is your opinion about the United States?'" the Americans asked, according to al-Gharabi. It was "an interrogation," he said.

"We told them that we hoped that the countries which helped us during the war would now help us in development," he said. "And America was at the top of the pyramid."

But al-Gharabi and two other Libyan militia leaders present said separately that they tried to warn McFarland. "We told them, 'Weapons are everywhere, in every home, and there is no real control,'" Bin Hamid said.

McFarland struggled to make sense of their contradictory signals. "The message was, 'Don't come here because there is no security, but come right away because we need you,'" McFarland later told colleagues.

The militia leaders seemed unable to get their stories straight, his colleagues said, and the vague warnings amounted to a reminder of what the diplomats already knew: Post-revolutionary Benghazi was a dangerous place.

BEDLAM

"Security vacuum," Stevens wrote in his personal diary on Sept. 6 in Tripoli, in one of the few pages recovered from the Benghazi compound.

"Militias are power on the ground," he wrote. "Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate," he continued. "Islamist 'hit list' in Benghazi. Me targeted on a prominent website (no more off compound jogging)." A map of his Tripoli jogging route had appeared on the Internet, seemingly inviting attacks, diplomats said.

But when he arrived from Tripoli for a visit, he was glad to be back in Benghazi. "Much stronger emotional connection to this place," he wrote in his diary on Sept. 10, "the people but also the smaller town feel and the moist air and green and spacious compound."

By 7 a.m. on Sept. 11, guards at the U.S. Mission had spotted a man taking photographs with a cellphone on the second floor of an unfinished building next to the Venezia Restaurant across the street, according to interviews with the compound's Libyan guards as well as the State Department report.

When the guards approached, the photographer fled in a police car with two others, all in the uniforms of a quasi-official militia known as the Supreme Security Committee. Fawzi Wanis, a former commander of the group, said he suspected the men were doing reconnaissance for someone else.

"We had all kinds in the Supreme Security Committee, from Islamist extremists to drunks," Wanis said.

In his diary, Stevens wrote, "Never ending security threats ..."

Around dusk, the Pan-Arab satellite networks began broadcasting footage of protesters breaching the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulling down the American flag and running up the black banner of militant Islam. Young men around Benghazi began calling one another with the news, several said, and many learned of the video for the first time.

Stevens, who spent the day in the compound for security reasons because of the Sept. 11 anniversary, learned about the breach in a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Then a diplomatic security officer at the Benghazi mission called to tell the CIA team. But as late as 6:40 p.m., Stevens appeared cheerful when he welcomed the Turkish consul, Ali Akin, for a visit.

There was even less security at the compound than usual, Akin said. No armed U.S. guards met him at the gate, only a few unarmed Libyans. "No security men, no diplomats, nobody," he said. "There was no deterrence."

At 8:30 p.m., British diplomats dropped off their vehicles and weapons before flying back to Tripoli. At 9:42 p.m., according to U.S. officials who have viewed the security camera footage, a police vehicle stationed outside turned on its ignition and drove slowly away.

A moment later a solitary figure strolled by the main gate, kicking pebbles and looking around -- a final once-over, according to the officials.

The attack began with just a few dozen fighters, according to those officials. The invaders fired their Kalashnikovs at the lights around the gate and broke through with ease.

The compound had a total of eight armed guards that night: five Americans and three Libyans affiliated with the February 17 militia. All of them fell back. The Americans raced to grab their weapons in the compound's other buildings but then found a swarm of attackers blocking their way to the main villa.

Stevens and an information officer took refuge in the villa's safe room while an armed security officer positioned himself to defend it.

Reports from the scene ricocheted around the city in frantic phone calls telling competing stories. Abu Baker Habib, a Libyan-American friend of Stevens, began calling for help from a handful of the most important militia leaders, like Bin Hamid and al-Gharabi. But a false report spread much wider and faster: that guards in the compound had shot and wounded Libyans who had come only to protest.

"They told each other that the Americans had killed a Libyan," al-Gharabi said. "For that reason, everybody would go."

Al-Gharabi, who was at a friend's wedding a hundred miles away, knew some of his fighters would join the attack, so he sent a delegation of "wise men" to deter them, he said. Bukatef of the February 17 Brigade was in Tripoli that night but said in an interview that he also believed some of his men had participated.

Soon scores, if not hundreds, of others were racing to the scene. Some arrived with guns, some with cameras. The attackers had posted sentries at Venezia Road, adjacent to the compound, to guard their rear flank, but they let pass anyone trying to join the mayhem. Witnesses said young men rushing inside had left empty pickup trucks from Ansar al-Shariah, but also all the other big militias ostensibly allied with the government.

There is no doubt that anger over the video motivated many attackers. A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him. Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.

Abu Khattala's whereabouts on the day before the attack could not be determined, nor could his precise role in its planning. People who know him say he was at work as usual in the days leading up to it.

"His neighborhood is full of people like him," said the leader of a major Islamist militia, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "So it is easy for him to pick up a phone and rally people around him."

Witnesses at the scene of the attack identified many participants associated with Ansar al-Shariah. Abu Khattala's presence and leadership were evident. He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as "sheikh" and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound.

A local Benghazi official named Anwar el-Dos arrived on the scene and identified Abu Khattala as directing the fighters, people present said. Then el-Dos approached Abu Khattala for help entering the compound.

The two drove into the mission in Abu Khattala's pickup truck, the witnesses said. As he moved forward, the fighters parted to let them pass.

Abu Khattala, in an interview, recounted meeting el-Dos that night. El-Dos declined to comment. When the truck doors opened inside the compound, witnesses said, Dos dived to the ground to avoid gunfire ringing all around. But Abu Khattala strolled coolly through the chaos.

"He was just calm as could be," a young Islamist who had joined the pillaging said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Around 11:30 p.m., Abu Khattala showed up on internal security cameras, according to officials who have viewed the footage.

Witnesses described utter bedlam inside. Men looted suits of clothes and carried them out on their hangers. They lugged out televisions. Some emerged from buildings clutching food they had found, and one poured what appeared to be Hershey's chocolate syrup into his mouth. Others squabbled over trophies as small as a coil of rope left on the ground.

A newly acquired and uninstalled generator sat near the main gate, with large cans of fuel beside it. Attackers stumbled upon it within 15 minutes of entering the compound, according to officials who have seen the video footage, and soon begun using the fuel to set fire to vehicles and buildings.

Libyan militia leaders who might have intervened to help the Americans washed their hands of the attack. At the militias' joint operations room inside the February 17 Brigade headquarters, the commander in charge was Bargathi of the militia called the Preventive Security Brigade. He had also been a friend and neighbor of Abu Khattala since childhood.

He said he immediately radioed the Libyan guards in the compound and told them not to resist the assault. "I told them: 'Don't shoot. Just run away from the place,'" he said. "Because I knew that it was not wise to provoke. These are not like normal attackers, and it might enrage them more. They might kill everyone inside."

He volunteered that the leaders of Ansar al-Shariah had joined him in the operations room shortly after the attack began -- underscoring the permeability of the line between threat and protector among Benghazi militias.

Of all the major militias in the city, Libya Shield was the best positioned to intervene. It was arguably the most formidable in the country at the time, and its leader, bin Hamid received an urgent call from the ambassador's friend Habib asking for help. Bin Hamid arrived at the scene within 30 minutes after the attack began, he said in an interview.

"The situation wasn't suitable for me to go inside the compound," bin Hamid said. "And when the shooting stopped, we thought the Americans had been evacuated."

A group of about 20 young men who had been hanging around the headquarters of the February 17 Brigade did try to help the Americans. But they ran into the attackers' sentries on Venezia Road.

"They pointed their guns at us and said, 'This is none of your business, go back,'" said Sherif Emrajee el-Sherif, 18, a petroleum engineering student who was among those who tried to help the Americans.

The militia fighters all followed an unstated code, the rescuers and other militiamen said. Never enter a public gunfight with other Libyans, for fear of setting off a cycle of retaliatory violence and demands for blood money. "It is normal," el-Sherif explained. "Whatever happened, they were other Libyans." (He and at least one other rescuer ultimately entered the compound with Americans from the CIA Annex, and el-Sherif was shot in the leg in gunfire inside.)

As the melee continued, Abu Khattala drove to the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah and an affiliated militia, Othman Ibn Affan, witnesses said. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

At one point, a fighter asked Abu Khattala what to do with the remains of the compound. "Flatten it," he said.

Later, Abu Khattala appeared to prepare for another phase of the attack. One young fighter with him told another to "cleanse ourselves for another battle" -- an apparent reference to a subsequent attack on the CIA Annex.

That phase appears to have been improvised that night. After the Americans fled from the mission to the CIA Annex, it, too, came under a sporadic, low-grade attack for the first time, suggesting that the assailants had just learned of it. Later, guards there observed people lingering in a nearby pasture, stirring fears that they were plotting coordinates for launching a mortar attack.

Back in Tripoli, U.S. diplomats scrambled to make sense of the news out of Benghazi. Many learned of Ansar al-Shariah's existence from social media during the attack. They sent seven security officers to Benghazi in a borrowed Libyan cargo jet.

Embassy officials had arranged for the team to be met by Fathi al-Obeidi, a trusted lieutenant of bin Hamid of Libya Shield. But when the jet landed around 1 a.m., seemingly every commander in Benghazi was competing for the honor of escorting the Americans, even those who did nothing to stop the attack, including bin Hamid himself.

A group from the Preventive Security Brigade, led that night by Abu Khattala's old friend Bargathi, insisted on coming, and held the team up for hours on the tarmac, al-Obeidi said. And instead of the low-profile escort the Americans had sought, a parade of nearly a dozen pickup trucks ultimately joined them.

Shortly after the convoy arrived around 5 a.m., the CIA Annex came under a new attack: the mortar rounds the guards had feared. Within 90 seconds, five had landed, the last three hitting the roof of the main building.

Almost all the Libyan fighters who had insisted on accompanying the Americans from the airport fled immediately.

Two U.S. security guards, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, were killed by the mortar shells. Stevens and Sean Smith, an information officer, suffocated in the burning of the main villa in the diplomatic compound.

BACK IN WASHINGTON

After the attack, Obama vowed retribution. "We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act," he said in a televised address from Washington on the morning of Sept. 12. "And make no mistake, justice will be done."

But much of the debate about Benghazi in Washington has revolved around statements made four days later in television interviews by Rice, who was then ambassador to the United Nations. "What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press," "almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video."

Republicans, pouncing on the misstatement, have argued that the Obama administration was trying to cover up al-Qaida's role. "It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an al-Qaida-led event," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said last month on Fox News.

"This was a preplanned, organized terrorist event," he said, "not a video. That whole part was debunked time and time again."

But the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist groups like Ansar al-Shariah with al-Qaida's international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting al-Qaida to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of al-Qaida, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker's boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.

Al-Qaida was having its own problems penetrating the Libyan chaos. Three weeks after the attack, on Oct. 3, 2012, leaders of the group's regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, sent a letter to a lieutenant about efforts to crack the new territory. The leaders said they had sent four teams to try to establish footholds in Libya. But of the four, only two in the southern Sahara "were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there," the letter said.

The letter, left behind when the group's leaders fled French troops in Mali, was later obtained and released by The Associated Press. It tallied up the "spectacular" acts of terrorism the group had accomplished around the region, but it made no mention of Benghazi or any other attacks in Libya.

More than a year later, the group appears more successful. People briefed on U.S. intelligence say the regional affiliate has established a presence in Derna.

In the days after the Benghazi attack, meanwhile, Abu Khattala was still at work on construction sites and moving at ease around the city, even mocking the U.S. political debate about the ambassador's death. "It is always the same two teams, but all that changes is the ball," he said in an interview. "They are just laughing at their own people."

Sitting for an interview on a Benghazi hotel patio three weeks after the attack, Abu Khattala acknowledged being at the scene. But he said he had stopped near the mission that night only to break up a traffic jam. He then left, he said, and returned later to help rescue a Libyan guard he had heard was trapped inside.

But he scarcely hid his sympathy for the attackers. While almost everyone else in Benghazi mourned Stevens as a friend of the revolution, Abu Khattala was unmoved by his death. "I did not know him," he said coolly.

And he suggested that the video insulting the Prophet Muhammad might well have justified the killing of four Americans. "From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad," he said.

But as U.S. investigators focused on Abu Khattala in the following weeks, other militia leaders closed ranks with him.

Bargathi and bin Hamid offered alibis for him, contradicting many witnesses. Bargathi said he had received a call from Abu Khattala after the attack had begun and that Abu Khattala had seemed surprised by the news.

Told that Abu Khattala had given his name as a corroborating witness, bin Hamid said they had stood together outside the compound because it seemed too dangerous to enter.

In an interview in the spring, bin Hamid said he had decided to make Abu Khattala a kind of local real estate judge, putting him in charge of settling disputes over property deeds.

"That made him happy," bin Hamid said. "He is good at this. He is a sincere person. People respect him."

Other Benghazi Islamists insist, bizarrely and without evidence, that they suspect the CIA killed the ambassador.

The leaders of Ansar al-Shariah, the hard-line Islamist group allied with Abu Khattala, declared in a statement read on television the morning after the attack that they had not participated in it. But they lauded the assault as a just response to the video. They, too, insisted that a "peaceful protest" had "escalated as a result of shooting that came from the consulate, which led to the ambassador's death by suffocation."

As they did with Abu Khattala, other local militia leaders and even elected officials embraced Ansar al-Shariah more tightly after the attack. Yousef al-Mangoush, chief of staff of the Libyan military, met with its leaders to confirm their warm ties. "Mangoush has a very good impression of them," said Ibrahim Bargathi, chief of the Preventive Security Brigade, who arranged the meeting.

Ansar al-Shariah focused on charitable missionary work, including an anti-drug campaign with local corporate sponsors, picking up garbage during sanitation strikes and offering exorcisms for those troubled by evil spirits.

"They are like Boy Scouts," Bargathi said. "Anything that promotes good, they support."

By summer, U.S. investigators had interviewed hundreds of witnesses and formally asked the Libyan government to arrest Abu Khattala, along with about a dozen others wanted for questioning. The U.S. military also prepared a plan to capture him on its own, pending presidential approval, officials said. But the administration held back, fearing that unilateral U.S. military action could set off a backlash that would undermine the fragile Libyan government.

In the meantime, violence among local groups has scattered the militia. This fall, Ansar al-Shariah fought a citywide gunbattle with a defected military unit that left at least nine dead. Opponents burned down Ansar al-Shariah's headquarters and bombed its clinic, and its fighters were driven into hiding.

The fighters are widely blamed for explosions that have destroyed seemingly every police station in the city, as well as car bombings and drive-by shootings targeting the defected unit.

Hearing rumors that a revenge-seeking mob was threatening to come after Abu Khattala this fall, dozens of his neighbors sprang to his defense in scenes reminiscent of Venezia Road on the night of the mission attack. Fighters raced to erect checkpoints around his house, and they pulled out Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers, truck-mounted artillery and even a tank. Some drove government-issued pickups.

Al-Gharabi said Libya's prime minister, under pressure from the Americans, had asked a Benghazi army commander for help apprehending Abu Khattala.

Al-Gharabi quoted the commander as replying, "You will be lucky if he does not apprehend you."


Copyright The New York Times News Service.

Read more articles by David D. Kirkpatrick



Sacramento Bee Job listing powered by Careerbuilder.com
Quick Job Search
Sacramento Bee Jobs »
Buy
Used Cars
Dealer and private-party ads
Make:

Model:

Price Range:
to
Search within:
miles of ZIP

Advanced Search | 1982 & Older

TODAY'S CIRCULARS