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Libya militia tensions hampered post-attack U.S. rescue effort

A team trying to reach survivors of the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador was held up by poor communications among the militias providing security.

October 24, 2012|By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
  • A man in Benghazi, Libya, makes his way near the safe house that was raided after the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on Sept. 11.
A man in Benghazi, Libya, makes his way near the safe house that was raided… (Mohammad Hannon / Associated…)

BENGHAZI, Libya — The U.S. ambassador was missing, his compound was in flames and the safe house where survivors took shelter had come under fire. But the U.S. rescue team had to wait, stymied by the disarray in post-revolutionary Libya.

The eight-member American team had rushed here from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, arriving at the airport about 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, hours after the attack on the U.S. mission that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and State Department staffer Sean Smith. The rescuers needed a ride to a second U.S. facility where more than 20 Americans were waiting to be evacuated.

Instead, they sat at the airport for about 45 minutes while Libyans tried to organize an escort. After the rescue team finally reached the safe house, the attackers struck again, hitting the compound with mortar rounds and killing two more Americans, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

Although it is unclear whether a quicker Libyan response could have ensured that the Americans, including Doherty and Woods, were out of the safe house before it was hit the second time, the delay does underscore the messy security situation a year after the revolution that ended Moammar Kadafi's rule. Militias rather than the central government are responsible for security across the country, and Libyans involved in the operation said the slow response was due to confusion between government officials and militia leaders.

"It was our first time in an operation like this," said Qais Ben Hamid, a deputy commander in Benghazi for Libya Shield, the pro-government militia that led the evacuation and is widely seen as the precursor to a new national army.

Libyan officials have pledged to help bring the Americans' attackers to justice, but they also face a more fundamental challenge: cobbling together a new army and police out of Kadafi's discredited security forces and the militias that sprang up during the revolution.

Militias are responsible for keeping the peace, arresting suspects and guarding sensitive facilities such as hospitals and diplomatic missions, including the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Many of the largest armed groups report to the military chief of staff in Tripoli, forming a shadow army far more powerful than the official forces.

But the various groups don't always communicate effectively — a major reason for the confusion in the early hours of Sept. 12.

With Stevens lost in the initial raid on the U.S. mission, survivors were brought around midnight to a second U.S. facility, a compound that included multiple villas and reportedly was used by CIA agents. The Americans huddled in a small room and tried to call the embassy in Tripoli to send reinforcements, but cellphones and satellite phones didn't work in the house. Some ventured outside to find a signal, only to come under mortar fire, according to a U.S. intelligence officer familiar with events.

The eight eventually were dispatched from Tripoli to evacuate those at the safe house. U.S. officials have not provided details about the team, describing it only as a "quick reaction force."

Senior commanders with Libya Shield described a succession of hurried cellphone calls between Tripoli and Benghazi after the U.S. security team reached the airport, more than four hours after the attack began.

At first, Ben Hamid said, officials in Tripoli tried to dispatch members of a Kadafi-era military unit called the saeqa, Libya's version of the special forces, to escort the U.S. security team to the second house. The unit defected at the start of the revolution in February 2011 under Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, who became the rebels' first military commander — and was killed by other rebels in an attack that underscored deep suspicions among the anti-Kadafi forces.

But the saeqa, a smaller force than Libya Shield, didn't respond to the call — a failure that experts say may actually have been for the better. Tainted by its ties to the old regime, the force's presence could have worsened tensions with Libyan civilians and another pro-government militia, the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade, a group of former revolutionaries who were the first to reach the scene.

"If these guys had any whiff of being … remnants of the national army, their legitimacy in the east is nil," said Frederic Wehrey, an expert on Libyan armed groups at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

An official at the Tripoli airport then called Libya Shield's commander in Benghazi on his cellphone. It took nearly an hour for Fathi Obeidi, the group's commander for special operations, to reach the eight Americans. He then ferried them from the airport in eastern Benghazi to the compound on the southern edge of the city in two Toyota Land Cruisers.

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