Libyan Militia Hired to Protect U.S. Benghazi Mission Was on Strike on Sept. 11 in ‘Protest Over Salary and Working Hours’

Terence P. Jeffrey | December 19, 2012 | 1:07am EST
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The U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi on Sept. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

( - The special Accountability Review Board that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed to investigate the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, says that a local militia the State Department hired to protect that mission was refusing to protect the movement of State Department vehicles in Benghazi on Sept. 11 in order to protest its wages and working hours.

Two Americans--Amb. Chris Stevens and State Department Information Management Officer Sean Smith--were killed at the Benghazi mission that day; and two more Americans--former Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty--were killed at a nearby CIA Annex.

“In the weeks and months leading up to the attacks, the response from post, Embassy Tripoli, and Washington to a deteriorating security situation was inadequate,” says the report, which was released on Tuesday. “At the same time, the SMC’s [Special Mission compound’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."

“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,” says the report.

The board’s report indicates that these Libyan militia simply did not do the job the State Department for some reason believed they would in protecting a U.S. diplomatic mission in what the report calls a “a lawless town ... in reality run by a diverse group of local Islamist militias."

“In the absence of an effective central government security presence, the Special Mission’s Libyan security contingent was composed of four armed members of the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade (February 17)--a local umbrella organization of militias dominant in Benghazi (some of which were Islamist) and loosely affiliated with the Libyan government, but not under its control,” says the report.

“The Special Mission also had an unarmed, contract local guard force (LGF), Blue Mountain Libya (BML), which provided five guards per eight-hour shift, 24/7, to open and close the gates, patrol the compound, and give warning in case of an attack.”

When terrorists suddenly attacked the U.S. compound at about 9:42 p.m. Benghazi time on Sept. 11, the February 17 militia not only failed to sound any warning, they immediately fled.

“Around the same time ,” the report says, “the TDY RSO [temporary duty State Department regional security officer] working in the TOC [tactical operations center] heard shots and an explosion. He then saw via security camera dozens of individuals, many armed, begin to enter the compound through the main entrance at the C1 gate. He hit the duck and cover alarm and yelled a warning over the radio, and recalled no such warning from the February 17 or BML guards, who had already begun to flee to points south and east in the compound, towards the Villa B area.”

Two assistant State Department regional security officers (ARSOs) told the board they at least heard a radio warning of the attack from the BML militia guards. “ARSOs 1 and 2 heard an attack warning from the BML guards passed on over the radio,” says the report.

The board concluded that the State Department’s reliance on these unskilled Libyan militias of questionable loyalty—including one that had gone on strike--was “misplaced.”

“The Board determined that reliance on February 17 for security in the event of an attack was misplaced, even though February 17 had been considered to have responded satisfactorily to previous, albeit less threatening, incidents,” says the report. “The four assigned February 17 guards were insufficient and did not have the requisite skills and reliability to provide a reasonable level of security on a 24/7 basis for an eight-acre compound with an extended perimeter wall. In the days prior to the attack and on September 11, 2012, one was absent. Over the course of its inquiry, the Board also learned of troubling indicators of February 17’s loyalties and its readiness to assist U.S. personnel. In the weeks preceding the Ambassador’s arrival, February 17 had complained about salaries and the lack of a contract for its personnel.

“At the time of the attacks, February 17 had ceased accompanying Special Mission vehicle movements in protest,” says the report. “The Blue Mountain Libya (BML) unarmed guards, whose primary responsibilities were to provide early warning and control access to the SMC, were also poorly skilled.”

The evidence, the report says, suggests that when the attack began personnel from one of the militias might have simply fled the scene, leaving open the gate to the mission compound so the attackers could roll right in.

“The Board found the responses by both BML and February 17 to be inadequate,” says the report. “No BML guards were present outside the compound immediately before the attack ensued, although perimeter security was one of their responsibilities, and there is conflicting information as to whether they sounded any alarms prior to fleeing the C1 gate area to other areas of the SMC.

“Although the unarmed BML guards could not be expected to repel an attack, they had core responsibility for providing early warning and controlling access to the compound, which they had not always performed well in the past,” says the report. “In the final analysis, the Board could not determine exactly how the C1 gate at the Special Mission compound was breached, but the speed with which attackers entered raised the possibility that BML guards left the C1 pedestrian gate open after initially seeing the attackers and fleeing the vicinity. They had left the gate unlatched before.

“The Board’s inquiry found little evidence that the armed February 17 guards alerted Americans at the SMC to the attack or summoned a February 17 militia presence to assist expeditiously once the attack was in progress--despite the fact that February 17 members were paid to provide interior security and a quick reaction force for the SMC and the fact that February 17 barracks were in the close vicinity, less than 2 km away from the SMC,” says the report. “A small number of February 17 militia members arrived at Villa C nearly an hour after the attack began. Although some February 17 members assisted in efforts to search for Ambassador Stevens in the smoke-filled Villa C building, the Board found little evidence that February 17 contributed meaningfully to the defense of the Special Mission compound, or to the evacuation to the airport that took place on the morning of September 12.”

While the attack was unfolding, and these militia were failing, the report says, there was “near-constant” communication between U.S. personnel in Benghazi and Washington, D.C.

“Overall, communication systems on the night of the attacks worked, with a near-constant information flow among Benghazi, Tripoli, and Washington,” says the report.

But there was not enough time, the report says, for the U.S. military to intervene.

“The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference,” says the report.

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