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Libya guards speak out on attack that killed U.S. ambassador

Two Libyan militiamen guarding the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi deny aiding the attackers. They say they initially fought back but fled when outnumbered.

October 10, 2012|By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

Consisting of four single-story bungalows arrayed around two large courtyards, the compound is surrounded by 9-foot-high walls topped with security wire. But the three metal entrance gates had no security wire.

One long wall abuts an unoccupied lot that the guards often worried could be a prime hiding spot. Another lies just off of a busy road, close to passing traffic.

Bright lights positioned on top of the walls shone into the compound, which the guards say made it difficult to see outside. The lights sometimes left footage from night security cameras either obscured by glare or pitch black, the Libyans say. "It did not seem like a good location for a sensitive building," says Abdelaziz Majbiri, a 29-year-old civilian guard for Blue Mountain, who was shot in the leg in the attack.

The Feb. 17 guards say that when they discussed their concerns with U.S. security officers, they were sometimes told that this was a political mission, not a full-fledged embassy, implying that security requirements were less stringent.

The Libyans' account of the attack matches that of U.S. intelligence officials who have called it an act of terrorism unconnected to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. Earlier that day, demonstrations over the film had turned violent at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Egypt, but the guards in Benghazi say U.S. personnel hadn't told them of the film or the protests — or to be on alert for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the hours before the raid, the compound was lazily quiet, the Libyans say. Stevens, who had arrived the day before for a five-day visit, met with the Turkish consul general and chatted briefly with the guards in Arabic before retiring to his residence. A regional security officer tossed a football around the courtyard.

Around 9:30 p.m., the guards heard cries of "Allahu akbar!" — "God is great" — three times from outside the walls. Then a voice called out in Arabic: "You infidels!" and the attackers raced inside.

In their bungalow, the militiamen say, they quickly strapped on their flak jackets and grabbed their weapons. The American voices on the radio sounded chaotic, and the Libyans couldn't make out instructions.

Five assailants entered the bungalow. The guards say they hid behind a bedroom door and fired shots. It's unclear whether they hit anyone, although video taken shortly after the attack shows blood on the floor.

Then, when the grenade was tossed, the Libyans say, they fled to the roof, where they watched another group of attackers head toward Stevens' residence. Below them, cars had been set ablaze. They presumed that the American guards had rushed to save Stevens, although he would later be found alone on the floor of the safe room in his villa, apparently asphyxiated.

The two guards didn't come down until militia reinforcements arrived and forced the attackers to withdraw.

FBI agents also questioned the Libyan militiamen about why it took so long for backup to arrive, and why certain units of the militia appeared not to have responded.

Hamad Bougrain, a spokesman for the Feb. 17 brigade, defends the response, saying that reinforcements arrived as quickly as possible and "fought bravely."

At times, the militiamen say, the FBI agents' questioning was hostile. At one point, one agent suggested to one militiaman that if he didn't tell the truth, U.S. forces would invade Libya to avenge the attack.

"The Marines could enter your country, and then you'd have a lot of problems here like in Iraq and Afghanistan," says the militiaman, who was interviewed in Tripoli.

Neither he nor his comrade were injured in the attack, but he is traumatized. He laments the death of Stevens, whom he admired. And he says that two days after the attack, men riding in a car without license plates drove through his neighborhood asking for him by name.

For now he's decided to stay in Tripoli, worried that if he returns to Benghazi he will be targeted for working with Americans. But the Americans don't seem to have any use for him anymore.

"I'm caught between two hells," he says.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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