Warriors aren’t trained to retire.
—Rone Woods, ex-Navy SEAL, killed at Benghazi
On September 11, 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attack that destroyed the Twin Towers, a Salafist Islamist group called Ansar al-Sharia (later ISIS) launched a massive ground assault against a US diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. Six members of the annex security team, known as the Global Response Staff (GRS), held off waves of attacks by heavily armed militants throughout the night, until they were evacuated in the morning by Libyan government forces and American reinforcements from nearby Tripoli. The United States Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, a US Foreign Service officer and two CIA security contractors died in the attack.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016), directed by Michael Bay, is based on the 2014 book of the same name by Mitchell Zuckoff, and tells the story of the courageous men who were contracted to protect the compound and annex. The movie is a dynamic edge-of-your-seat thriller and is blessedly free of the American presidential partisan politics that later got entwined with this tragedy. I will touch briefly on this, of course, but I want to focus instead on the film and the men who stood their ground and gave their lives.
It is 2012, and Benghazi has been designated too dangerous for the presence of any foreign embassy. All countries have closed their consulates, including the US.
However, the Americans have kept a small staff at a “diplomatic compound” and a CIA outpost (the annex) two kilometres away. The GRS, a small well-armed group of private military contractors, are on call around the clock to protect the diplomats in the event of terrorist attacks.
Ex-Navy SEAL Jack Silva disembarks at the Benghazi airport and is met by his old military buddy and current head of the GRS unit, Tyrone “Rone” Woods. He is the most recent newcomer to the team. He is immediately handed a loaded pistol. On their way from the airport, their vehicle gets trapped in a narrow cul-de-sac and surrounded by armed Islamic militia. They bluff their way out of the crisis and meet up at the CIA annex with their fellow contractors Mark “Oz” Geist, John “Tig” Tiegen, Kris “Tanto” Paronto and Dave “Boon” Benton.
The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, has arrived in Benghazi for a goodwill visit. The US wants to maintain diplomatic connections despite the unrest. GRS contractors have inspected the ambassador’s residence and deemed it an unacceptably high security risk but, due to the importance of the visit, their suggestions are ignored.
On the night of September 11, a group of Yemen-based Salafist Islamist militia, with ties to Al-Qaeda, overrun the compound, setting it on fire with diesel fuel. The ambassador is quickly shuttled to a safe room for protection but the fire extinguishes the oxygen in the room, resulting in his death.
The GRS men at the annex are aware from the beginning that the compound is under attack and desperately want to drive over there to do their job but they are forbidden to engage the “locals” by the CIA chief-of-station, who is referred to only as “Bob”.
Finally, against direct orders, the annex contractors leave for the besieged compound but after a brief firefight, and viewing the devastation of the out-of-control fire, they return to the annex to prepare for the inevitable assault there. The chief-of-station attempts to solicit help from US military assets in nearby countries, requesting a drone and a Spectre AC 130 gunship for air support, but he is turned down, told that the distance is too great for them to get there in time.
Glen “Bub” Doherty, a GRS officer in Tripoli, on the other side of Libya, puts together a small reinforcement group to fly to Benghazi. The militants unleash a fierce assault on the annex but are repelled by withering firepower from the small group of GRS professionals on the rooftops. After an hour of red tape at the airport requiring the exchange of money with yet another branch of Libyan militia, Doherty’s team finally arrives in Benghazi. But before they can escort the diplomatic staff and contractors to the airport to safety, the annex is hit by another assault, this time with precision mortar fire. Geist’s arm is partially severed and Woods and Doherty are killed by direct mortar hits.
As dawn breaks, the exhausted fighters observe a long line of fifty armoured vehicles approaching the annex. At first thought to be an overwhelming force of enemy attackers, the convoy is a friendly group of the Libya Shield Force militia. Their presence ends the assault.
Annex staff are safely accompanied to the airport to board a plane to Tripoli. The GRS team stay behind until the ambassador’s body is recovered three days later.
American director Michael Bay is known for the spectacular sci-fi disaster film Armageddon (1998). He directed and co-produced Pearl Harbor (2001) and the popular Transformers film series. He is one of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood but his films haven’t been well received by “serious” film critics.
Tony Horkins, of Empire, wrote: “Bay squanders the potential to explore the nuances of a politically sensitive issue and instead descends into a gruesome display of war porn.”
Personally, Armageddon is one of my all-time favourite sci-fi films and now 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi has also become a favourite. They both stand up well over time and repeated viewings. (Never listen to the damn critics!) I’m not a big fan of the Transformer movies—kids like them—and it is good to see Bay turn his skills to this kind of controversial and historical material.
The screenplay was written by the American novelist Chuck Hogan, and adapted from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff. Hogan is best known for the novel Prince of Thieves (2004), which won the 2005 Hammett Prize. Prince of Thieves was adapted into the Academy Award nominated film The Town (2010). Hogan is also co-author, with Guillermo del Toro, of The Strain trilogy. The main actors in 13 Hours give a strong array of compelling performances.
Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University and co-wrote the book about the Benghazi incident with Geist, Paronto and Tiegen. He is the author of Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II (2013) and he played an instrumental role in discovering a lost US military aeroplane that crashed in Greenland during the war.
The film adaption of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is extremely faithful to the book. One important omission, however, is any reference to the controversial short video Innocence of Muslims, which became part of the later political controversy around the movie. The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, initially cited Innocence of Muslims as a possible provocation for the Benghazi attack. But Republicans argued this was an attempt to mislead the public. According to the men who were there, the Republicans were correct.
Innocence of Muslims was a fourteen-minute video uploaded to YouTube in July 2012, two months before the attack, and written by Mark Basseley Nakoula, using the alias of “Sam Bacile”. Its English title was The Real Life of Muhammad. The actors in the video have said that anti-Islamic content was added later in post-production without their knowledge or permission. When it was released on the internet, protests broke out all over Egypt resulting in over fifty deaths. A fatwa was issued against Nakoula; a Pakistani minister offered a private bounty of $100,000 for his death. In 2012 an Egyptian court sentenced him to death, in absentia, for defaming Islam.
Nakoula had been arrested by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department back in 1997 on charges of manufacture of methamphetamines and sentenced to one year in jail and three years probation. He violated his parole in 2002 and received another year in jail. In 2010, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to twenty-one months in jail and five years probation. He was released in 2011 and shortly after made the Innocence of Muslims video.
The conditions of Nakoula’s parole stated he was not to use aliases or the internet without permission from his parole officer. He was arrested again in 2012 for lying to probation officers and given another year in jail, followed by four years of supervised release.
But none of the contractors believe that this video was the reason for the attack. Kris Paronto told Herman Cain of Canada Free Press:
It was twenty-four to thirty-six hours later that I turned on the TV and saw some excuse about a video. It was very odd that they went on TV that quickly to denounce it without even talking to the guys that were involved with the fighting.
Paronto believes the protests in Egypt in that month were certainly over the anti-Islamic video, but he said he has never heard of protests happening with no media present and involving skilled mortarmen. He estimates that at least two weeks to thirty days were required to mount the Benghazi attack. The mortars themselves—81mm mortar tubes—were so accurate that it indicated a high level of training, not a spontaneous protest. He believes the intention wasn’t to massacre anyone, or even destroy the compound, but to take the ambassador hostage.
John Tiegen agreed: “They had to blame it on something. They couldn’t just say we came under attack … protests don’t usually happen at 9.30 at night.”
The true identity of CIA chief-of-station “Bob” still remains secret. Paronto told The O’Reilly Factor, “Wish we could put that out there. Whether we’d like to or not, it’s still a safety issue. For his safety.” The Washington Post interviewed the real “Bob”, who said, “There never was a stand-down order. At no time did I ever second-guess that the team would depart.”
The CIA made a statement to ABC News calling the claims in the movie “shameful” and “a distortion of events”. They denied that a stand-down order was ever given. But the contractors unanimously confirm that they were ordered to stand down. Mark Geist told Sean Hannity: “The facts are the facts. We were there. No other congressman was there that I saw, and we made a decision to go and we saved lives. But people are out there saying that we are lying.”
Geist said that the twenty-minute delay “crippled their rescue mission”. In Special Report with Bret Baier, Paronto added: “We jumped up and got ready to go … we were ready to go within five minutes … [but] we were never given the OK to go.” Their decision to disobey orders saved thirty lives.
Many of former President Clinton’s political opponents tried to use Benghazi to place the blame on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But her name is never mentioned in the film. Geist said: “Do I hold her accountable? No. You know who I hold accountable is al-Sharia. That’s who attacked them. That’s who killed the ambassador.”
The movie has come under intense criticism by the press but has the full support of the men who were there. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote: “the movie is a pummeling slog—45 minutes of setup and an eternity of relentless combat”. Mike Kermode of the Observer said:
The director claims that his film “doesn’t get political at all”, concentrating solely on “what happened on the ground”, but you’d have to be asleep (a tempting prospect) to miss the Fox News-friendly messages about lily-livered bureaucrats and liberal politicians being to blame for the loss of American lives.
Paronto said that one important risk the operators took that hasn’t been sufficiently stressed was that by disobeying orders, it put their contractor insurance in jeopardy. They were acting outside their prescribed duties and wouldn’t be covered for being wounded or killed.
He said initially that being asked to wait made some sense because he thought the chief-of-station was trying to find them air support and it was only a short five-minute drive over to the compound. They had six men and knew they would be facing a potential thirty-to-fifty-strong enemy.
After the first five minutes, however, Paronto realised something else was going on. Ten more minutes went by. The stand-down order was given. Another ten minutes went by before they decided to disobey it. He said, “It’s our fault they’re dead because we should have bucked orders sooner … we’re all military and you do what your commander says until that order is not a legitimate order any longer.”
After Paronto retired from active contracting, he set up the 14th Hour Foundation, which provides support and assistance to military and first responders, as well as their immediate families.
John Tiegen is married and the father of twins. He was part of the original team that opened up both the compound and the annex. He said, “I got lung damage from smoke inhalation there at the consulate, and it still manifests itself as a dry cough. I got nerve damage in my elbow and will have some surgery soon to help with that.” He told ABC News: “Once we get injured and we get out of contract, we get no more pay. I got a lot of lung damage when I was over there, trying to get care through the workman’s comp and it just wasn’t working.” In an interview with Ballistics magazine, he said:
Of course, we didn’t make any money off of it—the book or the movie … I would have made way more money if I’d just continued to contract … I’ve also linked up with a retired detective out of Fort Worth teaching women situational awareness, self-defense and concealed carry. We’re only dealing with women—no men. Women are the ones who need more protection because they’re getting attacked more.
When asked if he ever thought about surrender at Benghazi, he said: “Oh no, you surrender and you’re going to be on YouTube with your head cut off. No, that was not even a blip.”
Tiegen and his wife Margaret, a retired US Army sergeant, started the Tiegen Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to wounded veterans and first responders. Tiegen said: “We’re trying to help guys with PTS—not PTSD, because it is not a ‘disorder’.”
Dave Benton is a Marine veteran and trained sniper. He has remained anonymous until just recently. (His picture was blurred out in the book.) He now devotes his life to teaching, through his company, Threat Management Solution, in Florida. Many of his students are law enforcement officers.
“Jack Silva” is an alias for a contractor who has decided to remain anonymous in order to protect his identity. The face on his photographs in the book is also blurred out.
Glen Doherty was only forty-two when he was killed. His Tripoli contract was scheduled to be his last for the CIA. He was returning home to a stable new job, out of danger, which would have allowed him to have more time with his parents, brother and sister. Because he wasn’t married and didn’t have children, Rutherford Financial & Insurance, the exclusive insurance company for the CIA, initially refused to pay his family the death benefits that married contractors received. In 2014, due to a statute of limitations deadline, the family had to file a $1 million wrongful death suit against Rutherford and the CIA. In 2016, they were awarded a payout of $400,000. The family set up the Glen Doherty Memorial Foundation, which offers scholarships to special operators to help them readjust to civilian life.
Mark Geist went through fourteen surgeries and two years of rehabilitation to save his partially severed arm. He and his wife Krystal subsequently set up the Shadow Warriors Project, which helps private military contractors who risk their lives protecting others without the public acknowledgment or support ordinarily given to injured active military or veterans. Financial assistance is generated, from donations, events and fundraisers, for medical bills, PTSD sessions and family therapy.
Dr Ziad Abu Zei, the doctor who tried to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s life, said that Stevens still had a pulse when he was brought to him but forty-five minutes of resuscitation failed to save him. According to the regional security officer in Libya, Eric Nordstrom, Stevens had pleaded to have security increased at the compound for months before the attack. His pleas were ignored.
Following the Benghazi attack, Libyan President Mohammed al-Magariaf ordered all militias disbanded and banned people from carrying weapons in public. But ten months afterwards, reports showed that support for Al-Qaeda was increasing.
After four decades of dictatorship, when Libyans were not allowed to express political opinions, clashes continued between the rival militias that formed after the 2011 fall of Gaddafi, many with extreme and conflicting ideas. Ahmed Abu Khattala, the militia leader who helped orchestrate the attacks, was captured a few months later by US Special Operations troops and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison.
Oil is still the main export of Libya, with 1.5 million barrels a day, and is the most coveted prize for the main political and militia factions. In a fierce battle for Tripoli in 2014, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, set up a parallel government, attacking the capital in 2019. But the LNA was repelled by an alliance of western Libyan militias with assistance from Turkey. The UN intervened to back a new peace process, bringing in temporary government with a proposed national election for 2021. But disagreement on rules prevented the election. Turkey maintains airbases and drones around Tripoli, while the western factions, anxious to hold on to their power, remain in conflict about how a new government should be formed.