Abridged ARB Report
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
-- George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense (1905)
convened an Accountability Review Board (ARB) for Benghazi to
examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the September 11-12, 2012,
killings of four U.S. government personnel, including the U.S. Ambassador to
Libya, John Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya.
A series of attacks on September 11-12, 2012 involving arson, small-arms and machine-gun fire, a
nd use of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), grenades and mortars, focused on two U.S.
facilities in Benghazi, as well as U.S. personnel en route between the two facilities.
In addition, the attacks severely wounded two U.S. personnel, injured three Libyan
contract guards and resulted in the destruction and abandonment of both facilities –
the U.S. Special Mission compound (SMC) and Annex.
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering served as Chairman, with
Admiral Michael Mullen as Vice Chairman.
Additional members were Catherine
Bertini, Richard Shinnick, and Hugh Turner, who represented the IC.
The criminal investigation (by) Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI), was still underway at the time of this report.
The key questions surrounding the identity, actions and motivations of the
perpetrators remain to be determined by the ongoing criminal investigation.
As called for by the Act, this report examines:
whether the attacks were security related;
whether security systems and procedures were adequate and implemented properly;
the impact of intelligence and information availability;
whether any other facts or circumstances in these cases may be relevant to appropriate security management of U.S. missions worldwide;
and, finally, whether any U.S. government employee or contractor, as defined by the Act,
breached her or his duty.
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The Benghazi attacks represented the first murder of a U.S. ambassador
since 1988, and took place 11 years to the day after the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001.
Ambassador Stevens personified the U.S. commitment to a
free and democratic Libya. His knowledge of Arabic, his ability to move in all
sectors of the population, and his wide circle of friends, particularly in Benghazi,
marked him as an exceptional practitioner of modern diplomacy.
The U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, established in November 2011,
was the successor to his highly successful endeavor as Special Envoy to the rebel-led government that
eventually toppled Muammar Qaddafi in fall 2011.
The Special Mission bolstered
U.S. support for Libya’s democratic transition through engagement with eastern
Libya, the birthplace of the revolt against Qaddafi and a regional power center.
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A series of terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11-12, 2012,
resulted in the deaths of four U.S. government personnel, Ambassador Chris
Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty; seriously wounded two
other U.S. personnel and injured three Libyan contract guards; and resulted in the
destruction and abandonment of the U.S. Special Mission compound and Annex.
In examining the circumstances of these attacks, the Accountability Review Board
for Benghazi determined that:
1. The attacks were security related, involving arson, small arms and machine gun
fire, and the use of RPGs, grenades, and mortars against U.S. personnel at two
separate facilities – the SMC and the Annex – and en route between them.
Responsibility for the tragic loss of life, injuries, and damage to U.S. facilities
and property rests solely and completely with the terrorists who perpetrated the
The Board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks,
which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity.
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a series of attacks that began with the sudden penetration of
the Special Mission compound by dozens of armed attackers.
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U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi performed with courage and readiness
to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation.
The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover
Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith.
4. The Board found that intelligence provided no immediate, specific tactical
warning of the September 11 attacks.
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Stevens initially operated from the Tibesti Hotel in downtown Benghazi. He
was accompanied by a security contingent of 10 Diplomatic Security agents whose
primary responsibilities were to provide personal protective services.
Stevens’ mission was to serve as the liaison with the TNC in preparation for a post-Qaddafi
democratic government in Libya. By all accounts, he was extremely effective,
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Benghazi, however, was still very much a conflict zone. On June 1, 2011, a
car bomb exploded outside the Tibesti Hotel, and shortly thereafter a credible
threat against the Special Envoy mission prompted Stevens to move to the Annex.
On June 21, 2011, he and his security contingent moved to what would become the
Special Mission Benghazi compound (SMC).
By the end of August 2011, the
walled compound consisted of three sections (Villas A, B, and C) on 13 acres.
(Use of Villa A was discontinued in January 2012, when the SMC footprint was
consolidated into the Villas B and C compounds, some eight-acres total.)
In December 2011, the Under Secretary for Management
UNCLASSIFIED approved a one-year
continuation of the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi,
which was never a consulate
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. However, 2012 saw an overall deterioration of the
security environment in Benghazi, as highlighted by a series of security incidents
involving the Special Mission, international organizations, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), and third-country nationals and diplomats:
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TIMELINE OF THE ATTACKS September 11-12, 2012
(All times are best estimates based on existing data and should be considered approximate.)
The Prelude – the Ambassador’s Arrival
Ambassador Chris Stevens arrived in Benghazi, Libya on September 10,
2012, accompanied by two temporary duty (TDY) Assistant Regional Security
Officers (ARSOs) from Tripoli.
It was the Ambassador’s first visit to Benghazi since he departed as then-Special Envoy in November 2011.
With the Ambassador’s arrival, there were eight Americans at the Special Mission
compound (SMC) on September 10-11, 2012, including the Ambassador;
Information Management Officer (IMO) Sean Smith, who arrived in Benghazi one
week earlier to provide TDY communications and management support; and five
Diplomatic Security (DS) agents (three assigned on short-term TDY to Benghazi –
“TDY RSO”, “ARSO 1” and “ARSO 2” – and the two who traveled from Tripoli
to provide protection for the Ambassador during his visit – “ARSO 3” and “ARSO 4”).
The eighth American, the TDY Benghazi principal officer, completed his 13-
day assignment and returned to his full-time job in Tripoli the morning of
September 11, leaving seven Americans at the compound.
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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.
They resided in a guest house building on compound. Normally
four members resided on the Special Mission compound near the front gate,
but on September 11 one had been absent for several days, reportedly due to a family illness.
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.
Security Environment on September 11, Preceding Attacks
In consultation with the TDY RSO and mindful of the threat environment
and the September 11 anniversary, Ambassador Stevens did not leave the SMC on
September 11, but rather held meetings there.
At approximately 0645 local that morning, a BML contract guard saw an
unknown individual in a Libyan Supreme Security Council (SSC) police uniform apparently taking photos
of the compound villas with a cell phone from the second floor of a building under construction
across the street to the north of the SMC. The individual was reportedly stopped
by BML guards, denied any wrongdoing, and departed in a police car with two
This was reported to ARSOs 1 and 2. Later that morning they inspected
the area where the individual was seen standing and informed the Annex of the
incident. There had not been any related threat reporting. The local February 17
militia headquarters was informed of the incident and reportedly complained to the
local SSC on the Special Mission’s behalf. The Ambassador reviewed a Special
Mission-drafted complaint to local authorities on the surveillance incident;
however, it was not submitted due to the typically early closure of Libyan
government offices. Later on September 11, the Ambassador was informed by his
Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Tripoli of the breach of the Embassy Cairo
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compound that had occurred that day and briefly discussed the news with ARSO 3.
The TDY RSO was also informed of the Cairo compound breach by his Regional
Security Officer counterpart in Tripoli and shared the information with colleagues
at the Annex.
At approximately 1940 local, Ambassador Stevens and an accompanying
ARSO escorted a Turkish diplomat to the SMC’s main exit at the north C1 gate,
where nothing out of the ordinary was noted.
Some 30 minutes later, between 2010 and 2030 local, a UK security team supporting a
day visit by British diplomats dropped off vehicles and equipment at the SMC (per arrangements made
after the UK diplomatic office in Benghazi suspended operations in June 2012).
When the UK security team departed via the C1 gate at about 2030 local, there
were no signs of anything unusual, including no roadblocks outside of the
compound, and traffic flowed normally.
Ambassador Stevens and IMO Sean Smith retired for the night to Villa C at
about 2100 local,
while ARSO 4 watched a video in the Villa C common space.
ARSOs 1, 2, and 3 were sitting together outside and behind Villa C;
the TDY RSO was working in the workspace building referred to as the “Office” or “TOC”
(Tactical Operations Center), near the Villa B compound, which was connected to
the Villa C compound by an alleyway.
From the TOC, the TDY RSO could
monitor a series of security cameras placed in and around the perimeter of the
SMC. The ARSOs were each armed with their standard issue sidearm pistol; their
“kits,” generally consisting of body armor, radio and an M4 rifle, were in their
bedroom/sleeping areas, in accord with Special Mission practice.
The Attack on the Special Mission Compound
An SSC police vehicle, which had arrived at the main compound gate (C1)
at 2102 local, departed at 2142. The Special Mission had requested that a marked
SSC police car be posted outside of the compound 24/7, but in practice a car was
there only intermittently.
The Special Mission had requested this presence again,
specifically for the duration of the Ambassador’s visit. A subsequent local press
report quotes an SSC official as saying that he ordered the removal of the car “to
prevent civilian casualties.”
Around the same time, the TDY RSO working in the TOC heard shots and
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
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duck and cover alarm and yelled a warning over the radio,
recalled no such
warning from the February 17 or BML guards,
had already begun to flee to
points south and east in the compound, towards the Villa B area
ARSOs 1 and 2
heard an attack warning from the BML guards passed on over the radio.
RSO also alerted the Annex and Embassy Tripoli by cell phone.
The other three ARSOs behind Villa C also heard gunfire and explosions, as
well as chanting, and responded immediately along with ARSO 4, who was inside
Following the SMC’s emergency plan, ARSO 1 entered Villa C to secure
the Ambassador and IMO in the safe area and to retrieve his kit; ARSOs 2, 3, and 4
moved to retrieve their kits, which were located in Villa B and the TOC.
in Villa C swiftly located the Ambassador and IMO Smith, asked them to don body
armor, and led them into the safe area in Villa C, which ARSO 1 secured.
reported their whereabouts by radio to the TDY RSO in the TOC. ARSO 1, armed
with an M4 rifle, shotgun and pistol, took up a defensive position inside the Villa C
safe area, with line of sight to the safe area gate and out of view of potential
ARSO 1 gave his cell phone to the Ambassador, who began making
calls to local contacts and Embassy Tripoli requesting assistance.
From Villa C, ARSO 4 ran to his sleeping quarters in Villa B to retrieve his
kit, while ARSOs 2 and 3 ran to the TOC, where ARSO 3 had last seen the
Ambassador, and where ARSO 2’s kit was located. (ARSO 2’s sleeping quarters
were in the TOC, making him the designated “TOC Officer” in their emergency
ARSO 3, upon not finding the Ambassador in the TOC, ran to Villa B
to get his kit; ARSO 2 remained in the TOC with the TDY RSO and shared
notification and communication duties with him.
At Villa B, ARSO 3 encountered
ARSO 4, who was also arming and equipping himself, and the two then attempted
to return to Villa C.
They turned back, however, after seeing many armed
intruders blocking the alley between Villas B and C.
ARSOs 3 and 4,
outnumbered and outgunned by the armed intruders in the alley, returned to Villa
B and barricaded themselves in a back room,
along with one LGF member whom
they had encountered outside Villa B.
Attack Continues, Use of Fire as a Weapon
Sometime between 2145 and 2200 local, armed intruders appear to have
used filled fuel cans that were stored next to new, uninstalled generators at the
February 17 living quarters near the C1 entrance to burn that building. The crowd
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also lit on fire vehicles that were parked nearby. Members of the crowd then
moved to Villa C.
In Villa C, ARSO 1, who was protecting Ambassador Stevens and IMO
Smith in the safe area, heard intruders breaking through the Villa C front door.
Men armed with AK rifles started to destroy the living room contents and then
approached the safe area gate and started banging on it.
ARSO 1 did not want to
compromise their location in the safe area by engaging the intruders,
warned the Ambassador and IMO Smith to prepare for the intruders to try to blast
the safe area gate locks open.
Instead the intruders departed,
and the lights in Villa
C appeared to dim. ARSO 1 realized that smoke from fires set inside the villa,
away from his vantage point, was reducing the light and visibility.
(There was no
line of sight to Villa C from the Villa B/TOC compound where the TDY RSO and
three ARSOs were barricaded. T
he TDY RSO in the TOC did not see smoke
emerge on the view from the camera near Villa C until shortly after 2200 local.)
As smoke engulfed the Villa C safe area, ARSO 1 led Ambassador Stevens
and IMO Smith into a bathroom with an exterior window.
All three crawled into
the bathroom, while the thick, black smoke made breathing difficult and reduced
visibility to zero. ARSO 1 tried to seal the door with towels and provide some
ventilation by opening the window.
Instead, opening the window worsened
conditions and drew more smoke into the bathroom, making it even more difficult
ARSO 1 determined that they could no longer stay in the safe area and
yelled to the others, whom he could no longer see, to follow him to an adjacent
bedroom, where there was an egress window. ARSO 1 crawled on his hands and
knees through a hallway to the bedroom, unable to see, while yelling and banging
on the floor to guide the Ambassador and IMO Smith to safety.
ARSO 1 opened
the window grill and exited the building, collapsing onto a small, partly enclosed
patio, at which point he believed he was being fired upon.
his exit, ARSO 1 realized the Ambassador and IMO had not followed him out the
He then re-entered Villa C through the egress window several times to
search for his colleagues while under fire by the intruders outside.
He was unable
to locate the Ambassador or IMO Smith, and severe heat and smoke forced him to
exit the building to recover between each attempt.
After several attempts, he
climbed a ladder to the roof
where he radioed the TOC for assistance and
attempted unsuccessfully to ventilate the building by breaking a skylight.
severe smoke inhalation, however, ARSO 1 was almost unintelligible, but the TDY
RSO and ARSO 2 in the TOC finally understood him to be saying that he did not
have the Ambassador or IMO Smith with him.
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While Villa C was under attack, armed individuals looted Villa B’s interior
and attempted to enter the area where ARSOs 3 and 4 were barricaded. The
intruders carried jerry cans and were seen on security cameras trying to dump them
on vehicles outside the TOC, but they were apparently empty. A group of
intruders also attempted unsuccessfully to break down the TOC entrance.
DS Agents Rally for Further Rescue Efforts
Just prior to receiving the TDY RSO’s distress call shortly after 2142 local,
the head of Annex security heard multiple explosions coming from the north in the
direction of the SMC.
The Annex security head immediately began to organize his
team’s departure and notified his superiors, who began to contact local security
elements to request support.
The Annex response team departed its compound in
two vehicles at approximately 2205 local.
The departure of the Annex team was
not delayed by orders from superiors; the team leader decided on his own to depart
the Annex compound once it was apparent, despite a brief delay to permit their
continuing efforts, that rapid support from local security elements was not