BENGHAZI, Libya — Face down on a roof inside the besieged American diplomatic compound, gunfire and flames crackling around them, the two young Libyan guards watched as several bearded men crept toward the ambassador’s residence with semiautomatic weapons and grenades strapped to their chests.
“We are finished,” one of the guards says he remembers thinking.
Both are veterans of the ragtag revolutionary forces that toppled Moammar Kadafi. Over the last year, while assigned by their militia to help protect the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the pair had been drilled by American security personnel in using their weapons, securing entrances, climbing walls and waging hand-to-hand combat.
They were the “quick reaction force” for a compound that was also protected by about five armed Americans and five Libyan civilians hired through a British firm and equipped only with electric batons and handcuffs.
But nothing, they say, had prepared them for this. They had practiced for an attack by 10 or 15 people; now there were scores of professional-looking militants who moved methodically and used well-practiced hand signals. To make matters worse on the night of Sept. 11, instead of four militiamen who were supposed to be on guard, there were only two inside the compound.
The militiamen say they initially fought back, but when one attacker lobbed a grenade into their bungalow near the compound’s entrance, they fled to the roof without their radios and with only one magazine of ammunition between them. The American security officers were nowhere in sight.
As the raid continued — eventually killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and another American inside the facility, and two other Americans at a separate location hours later — the two Libyans say that they survived by lying on the roof silently for about an hour, too stunned, scared and overmatched to fight back.
“We were not expecting such a massive attack,” the guard says. “We were not ready for it.”
The two militiamen, who spoke to The Times in separate interviews in the last week in Benghazi and Tripoli, the capital, say they are telling their story publicly for the first time in part because FBI investigators are raising questions about their role. One of the militiamen and a civilian guard say investigators asked them why the guards didn’t fight “to the death,” and were looking for signs that the attackers had collaborators within the militia.
The militiamen flatly deny supporting the assailants but acknowledge that their large, government-allied force, known as the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade, could include anti-American elements.
American officials have declined, as a matter of protocol, to discuss security arrangements at the outpost in eastern Libya . But the attack — the worst to strike a U.S. diplomatic mission since 1998 — grimly underscored the chaos in post-revolutionary Libya, where an array of heavily armed but unevenly trained militias is serving as a sort of substitute army and is responsible for virtually all security, including at diplomatic outposts. The Feb. 17 brigade is regarded as one of the more capable militias in eastern Libya.
The assault also raised questions about why Stevens, a high-value target who was known to venture into the streets, would have spent the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the Benghazi mission instead of the more fortified embassy in Tripoli.
The guards bristle at accusations that they shrank from the fight and say they had repeatedly warned American officials about flawed security arrangements.
“They called me a liar. They said we didn’t see you on the [security] cameras fighting,” says the second militiaman, who was questioned by the FBI recently in Tripoli and who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified out of fear for his safety.
“I told them that we fired our weapons in the beginning but when we got to the roof, there were 100 enemies and two of us. We could do nothing.”
Under an agreement with U.S. officials — who describe the post in Benghazi as a “special mission” and not a consulate, as it’s often been called — four Feb. 17 fighters were supposed to be posted at the compound around the clock. They trained and worked closely with a rotating cast of American security personnel and slept in the sand-colored bungalow closest to the main entrance and the ambassador’s residence.
But commanders still hadn’t replaced one of the four who left his post for personal reasons about a month before the attack. A second was patrolling outside the compound when the attackers arrived, and it’s unclear whether he engaged in the battle.
The militia members as well as two civilian guards employed by Blue Mountain, a British firm that in May was awarded a $783,000 State Department contract to help secure the compound, say in interviews that the facility was vulnerable.
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.