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.
Complicating matters that morning was the fact that the chief of staff, Youssef Mangoush, was on an official visit to Turkey and could not be easily reached on his cellphone, said Saleh B. Gaouda, a member of the Libyan parliament’s national security committee, who was involved in the communications.
“Benghazi is far from the capital and it’s still not clear even how orders from the government are to be sent to officials on the ground,” Gaouda said.
Minutes after the eight and their Libyan escort reached the annex, where U.S. security personnel had taken up positions on rooftops, they came under attack from mortar rounds and gunfire, Obeidi said.
Charlene Lamb, a senior State Department official, told Congress this month that the compound suffered “as many as three direct hits.”
Later that morning, the Americans finally left Benghazi in two aircraft, including a C-130 transport plane that carried the bodies of the four dead, Obeidi said.
The U.S. intelligence officer said, “It’s amazing they got that many people out.”
About two hours after the first attack started, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reported that the Islamist organization Ansar al Sharia had claimed responsibility in Facebook and Twitter postings, according to a State Department email released Tuesday. The group later disavowed responsibility, and Wehrey disputed the embassy characterization, saying the postings he reviewed “denied involvement but praised the attackers.”
Obeidi blamed the delayed response on the Libyans’ lack of experience and the fact that open cellphone lines, which are often unreliable, are the groups’ main source of communication.
“We are trying to build a real army,” Obeidi said, “and we still need assistance.”
For now, security in Libya varies from city to city and, in some cases, neighborhood to neighborhood.
In Tripoli, the Interior Ministry has established a nascent police force in the form of ex-revolutionary brigades called the Supreme Security Committees, which are equipped with radios and matching red-and-white sedans.
But after nightfall, checkpoints still appear on the city’s outskirts, staffed by young men with guns and mismatched camouflage.
Four hundred miles away in Benghazi, the Supreme Security Committees have offices but little presence on the streets. Rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons that rebels stole from Kadafi’s stocks during the revolution are for sale in the main market, sometimes by men who look barely old enough to drive.
At Jalaa Hospital, the main emergency trauma center in eastern Libya, the only security for months was provided by Ansar al Sharia. Ten days after the attack, protests forced the group to abandon its installations in Benghazi, including the hospital.
Now the doctors want the group back.
A weaker militia has taken its place, but security has badly deteriorated, with gun battles sometimes spilling into the parking lot and reception areas. After several days of chaos, including one incident where a nurse was assaulted, about 200 doctors, nurses and other staff signed a petition seeking Ansar al Sharia’s return.
“There is a lot of propaganda against them, but we are asking for them,” said Ahmed Abdul Gader, a weary-eyed orthopedic surgeon who was on duty one recent evening. “The government has no control here.”
Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.