Revisiting Deciphering the Mystery of the Benghazi Attack

Awhile back I wrote a post, Deciphering the Mystery of the Benghazi Attack, because I got annoyed with Ambassador Rice’s explanation that the Benghazi Attack was the result of a  “spontaneous protest gone bad”. My bull shit detector had gone off so I decided to take a stab at deciphering the event using the currently available information in the news. Now that the State Department has released a more comprehensive account of the night in their Background Briefing on Libya, I can say that I got several things wrong. In that post I attempted to guess at the real events and motives and my guess at the location of the safe house(annex) was wrong. Unfortunately for the Obama Administration, the press and I are still puzzled by the attack and the odd reactions by the Executive Branch, State Department, and the Intelligence community. It seems as if the intelligence reforms instituted after the 9-11 terrorist attack have failed. The flopping around by these three groups with the facts of the Benghazi attack remind me of a fish out of water. It is still a better policy to say too little than to say too much and thought a fool.

Here is some of the information I gleaned from the background briefing and some new questions to ponder.

  1. There were no demonstrations preceding the attack so the initial intelligence report that night described a terrorist attack. So where did the “spontaneous protest gone bad” explanation come from? What foreign policy considerations are so important that our government fed the public false information?
  2. The attackers brought diesel to set fire to the consulate. Fire is a crime of passion.
  3. The safe haven in the villa, Building C, was not protected from fire and smoke. Huh?! Fire is one of the oldest and simplest forms of attack. I suspect the attackers wanted to burn the consulate and the killing of  the Ambassador and Sean Smith was collateral damage from the fire. Who would have thought we were so unprepared? I would have thought gas masks or SCBA’s would be part of a minimum security preparation. Obviously there was not a lot of attention spent on egress from the “safe haven” during a fire or a room with its own air supply. In this case the “safe haven” became a death trap. Gas masks, SCBA’s, and a little advanced preparation does not cost a lot of money. This was just plain stupid!
  4. The “safe house” or otherwise known as the annex, was about two kilometers from the consulate and it came under mortar attack. Either the attackers knew the location of the annex or they followed the car escaping from the consulate with another car containing people, guns, munitions, and a mortar. The attackers seem to be pretty well equipped and prepared to take the battle to the enemy.

Here is a marked up map of the consulate and my guesses of the location of the various buildings.


What was Ambassador Stevens doing in the Benghazi consulate when it caught fire?

I was not going to write any more about the Benghazi Attack since the Administration has finally started to admit that the press was correct but I still have one lingering question. What was so important that Ambassador Stevens and his intelligence officer had to be in the consulate when it caught fire? This looks like an avoidable mistake. According to the NYTimes a significant portion of the staff was either employed by the CIA or working for them at gathering intelligence about the local militias and their post revolution transformations. Even if the information was very sensitive I am still confused why the Ambassador needed to personally supervise the document destruction. Surely they had a plan for when and how to destroy the sensitive documents without the Ambassador’s involvement?

The attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans has dealt the Central Intelligence Agency a major setback in its intelligence-gathering efforts at a time of increasing instability in the North African nation.

Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts –

Deciphering the Mystery of the Benghazi Attack

After listening to Ambassador Rice on NBC explain that the Benghazi attack  “apparently began as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam film before turning violent”, I got annoyed and decided to do my own investigation. There are a lot of loose ends that are not explained with the “spontaneous protest gone bad” explanation.  Since this attack constitutes murder in most countries,  I decided to use the means, motive, and opportunity framework to explore the facts of the crime. So lets start out with the first question of any investigation.

What was Ambassador Christopher Stevens doing in Benghazi?

According to a Jerusalem Post article Ambassador Steven was “had gone to the consulate in still-restive Benghazi to oversee its evacuation after the demonstration had started.”   The Jerusalem Post wrote on September 12th,

"In recent days, Islamic groups in Benghazi had been calling on people, using social media websites and e-mails, to go to the consulate and protest over the film. They called on normal civilians to go and attack the consulate, and many people followed them. They were firing at the sky and trying to storm the consulate, so the guards from inside started shooting at them, and it deteriorated from there,” a Benghazi-based reporter for an Arabic satellite channel told The Jerusalem Post.

At some point Ambassador Steven decides that an evacuation of the consulate is imminent so the Ambassador and the information management officer, Sean Smith, go to Benghazi to supervise the evacuation and disposal of potentially sensitive information. I have been unable to determine when they arrive but I assume it is on September 11th.

The Scene of the Crime

No crime investigation is complete until you visit the scene of the crime. In this case I rely on the BBC to point me to the right place on Google maps. Here is the Google maps location,

View Larger Map

The consulate is in the center of the picture and I am guessing that the “safe” house are the two buildings to its immediate right. BBC described those buildings taking fire and other news stories said the safe house took fire. What I noticed immediately is the amount of open space surrounding the consulate. When you zoom out it looks like the consulate is a kilometer or more from the more heavily populated areas. From the looks of the surrounding neighborhood I am guessing that the protestors were on unfamiliar ground.

Options I Disqualified

One option is a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda. They would have access to the weapons and tactical experience. However, their motive would be different than other terrorist groups. Although they would not mind embarrassing the US, the fire in the consulate and attacking the “safe” house doesn’t fit their profile. They probably would want a shot at the intelligence information in the consulate and setting fire to the consulate defeats that purpose. Attacking the “safe” house would be an unnecessary risk.

The “spontaneous protest gone bad” explanation used by the Administration and Ambassador Rice is pretty lame damage control. This implies that intelligence information warning about the attack was ignored and Ambassador Stevens presence in Benghazi was unrelated to the protests. Obviously this consulate is not as convenient to downtown as Tahrir Square is in Cairo. Somebody had to work hard to keep this protest going. Although I understand that the protesters were angry about the film, shooting assault weapons into the air was probably the limit to their anger. A “complex” attack involving mortars and RPGs are over the top for the protesters.

Means, Motive and Opportunity

Here is how I think the crime went down. Ambassador Stevens was likely aware of the news reports made by news agencies like the Jerusalem Post. When the protest started escalating he decided to evacuate the consulate and went to supervise the sensitive information disposal. I suspect that a terrorist group got information about the consulate evacuation.  A NBC news report called the attack “complex” but failed to explain how the attackers located the “safe” house. If the “safe” house was next door, the question is moot. When you look at the crime through the lens of means, motive, and opportunity, a terrorist group with a link to Gaddafi is the most likely culprit. They had the means. They probably still had access to heavy weapons and trained soldiers. Lobbing six mortars on the path to the villa would be easy for experienced soldiers. Under the cover of a protest they had the opportunity to scout and plan the attack of the compound. Escalating the protest into a fire fight with security forces protecting the compound would fulfill their desire for revenge. Then I think things got out of control. Setting fire to the consulate and attacking the safe house are acts of passion. For a group of loyalists to Gaddafi this attack would be sweet revenge.