WASHINGTON – U.S. national security officials are discussing what happened in Libya and what to do about it. They’ve all but come to a conclusion that it was a terror attack.
What do we know?
It happened on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was a coordinated and somewhat complicated attack. And it was a surprise – something U.S. intelligence and security officials have tried hard to avoid and have had success avoiding for 11 years.
How did it happen?
Looking back at some information that began to emerge on Tuesday, there were some clues as to what might have happened. Early in the day, Mohammed al-Zawahiri – the brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – went public with a very odd peace proposal designed to bring the West and the Muslim world together.
Late in the day, Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video eulogizing Abu Yahya al-Libi, his second in command, who was killed in a drone strike in June. He also called on Libyans to rise up against the West to avenge the death of al-Libi. Several hours later, a protest erupted in Egypt, which curiously is where the Zawahiris were born and raised.
As the protests there were wrapping up, another protest was sparked in Libya at about 4 p.m. EDT, or 10 p.m. Libyan local time.
Here’s the stream of events according to a U.S. official:
(NOTE: The timeline is based on an initial briefing from a U.S. official and subject to change or error)
10 p.m. Libyan local time: U.S. consulate facility began taking on gunfire from militants.
10:15: Militants gained access to the property. U.S. diplomats became scattered after the building began to fill with smoke, and they were separated from security while trying to escape smoke. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and staffer Sean Smith, who had driven into the facility for the day, became separated from security, perhaps while trying to get to a secure facility. Security went back to look for Smith and discovered he was deceased. But they were unable to locate the ambassador.
10:45 p.m.: U.S. security personnel and local police tried to regain control of the main building but were unsuccessful.
11:20 p.m.: U.S. and Libyan personnel made another unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the main building. Sometime after that point, some staffers had been evacuated, but two other U.S. personnel had been killed.
2 a.m.: Libyan security forces helped U.S. security regain control of the situation and discovered that at some point Stevens had escaped the building. Somehow he ended up in a hospital, but was pronounced dead. His body was taken to the Benghazi airport where all U.S. personnel had been evacuated for transport to Tripoli.
“It is the host government’s responsibility to provide adequate security and protection for all diplomats inside their country, much like we have the U.S. Secret Service Uniform(ed) Division providing security,” says Fred Burton, a retired diplomatic security agent and current vice president of intelligence at Stratfor. “One of the more problematic events that you can ever deal with is a large mob that overtakes a facility.”
“You never see that inside the U.S. simply because we have adequate police presence and can set up perimeters and keep rolling out the resources to counter that kind of event taking place,” Burton adds.
There are many questions yet to be answered. Chief among them is what happened to Stevens and how did he get separated from his security detail?
“We don’t know exactly where or when the ambassador was killed,” says Burton. “Was he killed coming back to the mission or was he trying to exit the mission? Was he trying to exit the safe house?”
In the fog of such a dangerous and dynamic situation, Burton says: “You may have had a situation that deteriorated so rapidly that a snap decision was made to load up the ambassador, and ‘Let’s get the hell out of dodge,’ and they just vacated and ran into a situation where you had a perimeter set up and RPGs were fired into the limo as it was departing.”
As the investigation progresses, it’s becoming more and more clear that perhaps the Zawahiri message, and the confluence of events on Sept. 11, were an elaborate plan to catch the U.S. off-guard – which appears to be what happened.
Editor’s Note:In the last four years, WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green has tracked the threats, policies and vulnerabilities dominating national security in the U.S. and beyond. Read the stories in his series – “The Situation: The State of U.S. National Security in 2012″ – here.