Libyan Gun Control Policies Left Guards Unarmed at U.S. Compound in Benghazi

By Terence P. Jeffrey | January 9, 2013 | 5:03pm EST

Burnt-out building at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

( - The gun control policies of the post-Gaddafi government in Libya delayed the arming of bodyguards for U.S. diplomats in that country and left the local guard force hired to watch over the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi unarmed, according to internal State Department memos and written testimony by the State Department officer who was in charge of the department’s security in Libya until six weeks before the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks.

“Our long term security plan in Libya was to recruit and deploy an armed, locally hired Libyan bodyguard unit,” State Department Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in written testimony.

“However, because of Libyan political sensitivities, armed private security companies were not allowed to operate in Libya,” Nordstrom said in his testimony submitted on Oct. 10. “Therefore, our existing, uniformed static local guard force, both in Tripoli and Benghazi were unarmed, similar to our static local guard forces at many posts around the world. Their job was to observe, report, and alert armed host nation security, and armed DS agents on-site.”

The State Department hired Libyan nationals to carry out two types of security jobs in that country. One set acted as bodyguards for diplomatic personnel when they travelled outside the State Department’s facilities. The other acted as a “static local guard force” to man the gates and watch over U.S. diplomatic compounds.

Nordstrom worked as the State Department’s Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, from Sept. 21, 2011 until July 26, 2012. On March 28, 2012, he sent a memo from Tripoli to the State Department in Washington, D.C., outlining what he believed to be some of the department’s security needs in Libya.

The department had hired a contractor to provide local security personnel in Benghazi, and, according to Nordstrom, the Libyans hired by this contractor were only able to obtain temporary “firearms permits” when senior U.S. officials came to Benghazi for short-term visits.

“Although an LGF [local guard force] contractor has begun operations in Benghazi, initial discussions regarding contractor-provided armed close protection/movement support does not appear viable based on complications regarding GOL [Government of Libya] firearms permits,” wrote Nordstrom in a memo that the State Department released to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Currently, the LGF contractor is able to obtain only short-term (48-72 hr) firearms permits for specific VIP visits.”

More than three months later, in a July 9, 2012 memo to from Tripoli to Washington, Nordstrom said that the government of Libya had “hindered” U.S. security efforts by delaying firearms permits.

“While post has made a number of procedural security enhancement[s] and physical security upgrades, our efforts to normalize security operations have been hindered by the lack of host nation security support, either static or response, an increase in violence against foreign targets, and GoL delays in issuing firearms permits for our LES [locally employed staff] close protection/bodyguard unit.”

Nordstrom told State Department headquarters that Ambassador Chris Stevens needed to intervene with the Libyan government in order to get an initial set of firearms permits issued to some of the Libyans the State Department had hired.

“With the receipt of firearms permits for 11-members of Post’s LES close protection team, RSO [Regional Security Officer] anticipates limited deployment of team members to support Ambassador, DCM [deputy chief of mission] and QRF [quick reaction force] details,” wrote Nordstrom. “However, this deployment will continue to require U.S. security personnel support and leadership until the close protection team (CPT) is fully staffed with 24 members.”

“Permits for the first 11 LES close protection team members took more than 2 months and required Ambassadorial intervention with the Minister of Interior,” wrote Nordstrom.

Nordstrom wrote in the same memo that the embassy would examine the possibility of arming at least some supervisors of the local guard force deployed at the State Department compounds, but again noted the obstacle of the Libyan government’s antipathy toward allowing such people to have guns.

“RSO and Post will continue to examine ways to augment the internal defense and static security profile at USG compounds in Libya, to include consideration of a partial arming of supervisory personnel in the LGF,” wrote Nordstrom. “Post anticipates that full implementation of armed supervisor LGF members could take up to 60 days for selection, training, equipping, policy approvals and deployment. Given the GoL’s traditional sensitivities regarding armed security personnel, Post does not recommend deployment of either an armed LGF or CPT element without notification to and licensing from the GoL.”

In his written testimony submitted to the House committee, Nordstrom explained that it eventually took until June 2012 for the Libyan government to give U.S. security personnel firearms permits and until July to give them to Libyan bodyguards. The local guards working at the Benghazi diplomatic compound, meanwhile, were unarmed when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2012.

“The idea of private armed security in Libya was still a new and sensitive concept to the Libyan Government,” Nordstrom said in his written testimony. “Abuses of Qaddafi foreign mercenaries were still fresh in the minds of the Libya people. While the Government of Libya and specifically the Ministry of Interior were supportive of the idea of a direct-hire Libyan bodyguard unit for the mission, it would take them time to develop the necessary infrastructure to support our proposal, including a site for driver training and fire arms training for the bodyguards.

“The speed of that deployment was also contingent upon the issuance of firearms permits from the Government of Libya,” Nordstrom testified. “Although more than a dozen bodyguards completed training by late April, we could only utilize them for duties that did not require them to be armed. This included acting as a liaison, or advance agent for a VIP visit or the Ambassador’s travel. U.S. security personnel were issued firearms permits at the beginning of June, 2012, with our local bodyguards receiving permits about a month later. The delay was a result of the Ministry of Interior conducting additional vetting of the bodyguards, to ensure that they were not former Qaddafi loyalists.”

At the time of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the Benghazi compound, in addition to five State Department diplomatic security agents who were present at the facility, there were also three armed members of the February 17 militia who had been hired to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and four unarmed Libyan security guards. However, the February 17 militia members were essentially on strike at that time, refusing to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel when they travelled outside the facility.

The State Department Accountability Review Board report criticized the State Department’s reliance on the militia and the unarmed arms.

“At the same time, the SMC’s [Special Dipomatic Mission’s] dependence on the armed but poorly skilled Libyan February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade (February 17) militia members and unarmed, locally contracted Blue Mountain Libya (BML) guards for security support was misplaced,” said the ARB report.

“At the time of Ambassador Stevens’ visit, February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying Special Mission vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours,” said the report.

According to a report published Dec. 31, 2012 by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the video monitor in the security command center at the Benghazi compound showed that the terrorists swarmed through the front gate of the compound without any resistance from either the armed militia or unarmed guards.

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