Benghazi 2012: Tactical Lessons That Can Be Assessed Ten Years Later



Benghazi, 2012: Tactical Lessons That Can be Assessed Ten Years Later


            On September 11, 2012, a horrible struggle occurred in a place many can’t even find on a map: Benghazi, Libya. Over the course of that night and much of the following day, American GRS operators and DS guards faced waves of attackers that overran the U.S. Special Mission Compound, killing the ambassador (the first to die overseas in 43 years) and a young tech, and almost did the same with the nearby CIA Annex, where one locally assigned operator and another who came to evacuate the site also died. These bold men displayed exceptional bravery that this country can only count itself blessed, and as such I’d like to recognize them before I go any further. First, to former GRS members D.B., Jack, Rone, Tig, Oz, and Tanto: you’re all heroes in every sense of the word, and I’m truly honored by both your service and your sacrifice for your country. Now, to those DS personnel who served at the Compound: Dave, Scott, and everyone else, you did an incredible job despite the odds, and you should all know what happened that night wasn’t on you. Lastly, I’d like to send my sympathies to the families of Rone, Bub, Sean Smith, and Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. While they’re no longer physically with us, they’ll always be present in our hearts, and I know God has blessed them for what they tried to accomplish despite the odds.

            Regarding the incident in question, there have been many different reports and dramatizations about what happened, no doubt with some elements contradicting each other, even now, ten years later. However, there are lessons all should be made familiar with for the coming future, and that’s why I’m writing this: to ensure that night’s failures don’t happen in the future. For the purposes of this analysis, I’m referring to the text 13 Hours since it’s the story of those who were physically on the ground, and that’s the one that matters here.

-Learn from history: In 1967, the understaffed U.S. Embassy in Libya was nearly overrun by a mob that’d been spurred on by false rumors. Only the intervention of a British armored column saved the day.

-Know when to pull out: Americans were initially welcomed in Benghazi after then President Obama used American aircraft to establish a No-Fly Zone in the uprising that dethroned/killed Muammar Gaddafi. However, we should’ve publicly acknowledged the new government and then left to let them sort out the many issues facing their people; sticking around made it look like we were needed for the country to function, and that soured our image in the eyes of many.

-Heed warning signs: In the months leading up to the 9/11 attack, there were no fewer than 6 separate incidents targeting American and British personnel in Benghazi. Worse, rising tension in the city, al-Qaeda flags being observed, and increasing hostility amongst the city’s many militias was cited in a report in July of that year, a travel warning for U.S. citizens was issued for Libya in August, repeated threats were overheard amongst civilians, and at least two hostile militia were known to be headquartered near the Compound. As if that weren’t enough, the threat level for both the Benghazi and Tripoli locations was labeled “Critical” (the highest level), Ambassador Stevens’ name was found on a hit list, and a reported credible threat aimed at the Benghazi site had all been reported in the days leading up to the attack. That’d been more than enough for the British to pull its staff, but our people were kept in place.

-Never place personnel beyond friendly aid: The Benghazi Compound was hours away from any viable military assistance. By the time back-up arrived, it was too late.

-Protect your people: The targeted location had sandbag/concrete bunkers, a safe room for the ambassador, reinforced walls, and strong gates. However, the exterior walls were short enough that neighboring buildings could see over them and, given how the site was classified as a Special Mission Compound, not an Embassy, it wasn’t required to be fireproof. A further embarrassing note is that they’d had new security cameras delivered, but they hadn’t been installed before the attack occurred. Worse, the 8-acre site only had 5 DS guards, 4 hired members of the local 17 February militia, and a handful of British local contractors to provide security, and their armament was limited at best. DS staff repeatedly requested additional security, but were denied on the grounds of staffing shortages; Ambassador Stevens also put in three separate requests for additional security (even saying the current security was too weak), but was told to let DS handle it. In addition, the GRS operators repeatedly conducted drills testing the locale’s security, and they concluded it would be at an extreme disadvantage if attacked. Moreover, a December 2012 report found the defenses woefully inadequate. In contrast, the nearby CIA Annex was only 2 acres, but had better walls, floodlights, and guards equipped with heavy firepower. Plus, its four main buildings allowed those atop them to scan/defend the perimeter, and their close proximity allowed the use of interior lines. Ironically, the Annex offered to move Stevens and the other Compound occupants in for their safety, but the offer was refused.

-Choose allies carefully: The 17 February Militia started out friendly, but their mood toward Americans was souring throughout the time leading to 9/11. Those hired to guard the Compound were suspected of having vandalized/looted the buildings, many members were known to be openly hostile to the U.S., and others were staging a work stoppage in protest of long hours and inadequate pay. Also, they were known to be poorly trained and have almost no discipline. Yet, for unknown reasons, they were kept as security and the primary response force in case of a crisis. It backfired royally when the attack hit the Compound and these men either fled or hid, not putting up a fight.

-If there’s a chance to head off a crisis, take it: Just before the attack, waves of protest broke out in Egypt over a video demonizing the Prophet Muhammad. This was a golden opportunity to nip the coming threat in the bud, but the Cairo Embassy’s clumsily worded rebuff only fanned the flames.

-Choose appropriate leaders: CIA Annex Base Chief Bob was regarded as inept by the GRS operators, and he more than proved this throughout the crisis. For example, when the attack came on the Annex, he’d been reduced to moping and made almost no real contribution to its defense.

-Move quickly to contain a threat: When the attack on the Compound occurred, all GRS Operators but Oz were present at the Annex. Unfortunately, although they were prepped and ready to proceed within moments, Bob and their Team Leader told them to stand down while they coordinated movements with 17 February; many later felt the intent was for the militia to handle everything. If they’d moved initially, they might’ve been able to catch the enemy from behind and maybe take the sting out of the assault. Instead, twenty precious minutes were lost before the operators left on their own initiative, but by then it was too late.

-Try to anticipate problems beforehand so you can prepare accordingly: The GRS Operators learned the streets thoroughly, which was how they were able to navigate the city more effectively. However, the DS members required a local driver to get around, making them easy to lead astray when they exited the Compound. Also, Glen’s attempt to reach the Annex with reinforcements got bogged down by bickering amongst the militia members chosen for the move, delaying him by hours.

-Know when to stand and fight: The CIA Annex didn’t have enough armored vehicles to evacuate everyone, and an attempt to run for the airport would’ve been suicide right after the Compound fell despite the obvious threat (the latter evidenced by one of the former’s Libyan guards recommending they leave). Oz’s decision to lock down the Annex and help integrate DS with all other available security saved their lives.

-Make sure allies are still friendly and/or reliable, despite circumstances: When the operators reached the Compound, they did so with the aid of 17 February members who were trustworthy. Unfortunately, others arrived later who left the Compound’s back gate unlocked and summarily fled when the next wave of attackers hit, nearly letting the enemy retake the position. Worse, when the potential threat to the Annex manifested later, the Libyan security all fled too.

-Fanaticism motivates, but guarantees nothing: The hostile militias who attacked the Annex did so thinking they’d have another easy win, completely forgetting they only took the Compound due to having the element of surprise and facing unprepared defenders. In contrast, the GRS operators were all ex-military (3 former Marines, 2 former SEALs, and 1 former Ranger), equipped with potent automatic weapons and night vision, and had had over an hour since the Compound fell to prep for an attack. On top of that, they now had the DS personnel as back-up, solid defenses, and better discipline. Thus, when the attacking fighters’ first 2 waves moved in, superior firepower slaughtered them.

-Never underestimate an enemy’s resolve: When dawn was breaking, Glen finally arrived with the convoy to evacuate the Annex, only to be hit by a series of mortar strikes that killed both him and Rone. Clearly, the enemy was out for either revenge or attempting to save face after being shot up so badly.

-Be prepared for consequences if you fail: The Obama Administration got pounded in the press due to this incident, and it led to them getting hammered in the upcoming mid-term elections. For example, an attempt to save face by the State Department involved a report that claimed there was no interference with the effort to save the Compound, something backed by Annex Chief Bob, namely insisting there was no order to wait. Other reports claimed every effort had been made to save the Compound and Annex. Unfortunately, subsequent investigations found Secretary of Defense Panetta and General Dempsey reportedly told Obama about the incident around 20 minutes after it began, and he told them to respond “with all available Department of Defense assets”; he then supposedly instructed Clinton to call the Libyan President to coordinate aid and support. However, Panetta also said that was the only time he spoke to Obama that period, and all the military heads spent plenty of time talking but never sent any support. The scandal followed Clinton through her 2016 presidential bid, where it became a factor that cost her the election.

            To wrap this up, Benghazi was a night of unparalleled heroism cloaked in a haze of bungling and colossally poor judgment. I can only hope and pray our future leaders can heed the lessons purchased in the blood of four men that night, not just for future missions, but for everyone’s sake, for this was something that could’ve been prevented if those at the top had been better prepared. I’m sorry the cost was so high, but that’s why the old song lyric says, “Freedom isn’t free…you have to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice for your liberty.” We’ve got our liberty because of these brave heroes, so let’s never waste it again. 


Andrew Nickerson

 Andrew's originally from Massachusetts and has been a military history/tactics/strategy fan for almost 30 years. He started writing in high school and continued while earning his BA in History (English minor) at UMASS Lowell and JD at Mass. School of Law, and never looked back. He's since self-published a novella on Amazon, printed 1 article apiece on Polygon, Anime Herald, Academy of Heart and Mind, Pipeline Artists, and this publication (Environmental Justice), recently printed a short story in Evening Street Review's Winter volume, and will have another short story printed in Academy of Heart and Mind in June. 

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