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“Benghazi Undoubtedly Crossed Everybody’s Thoughts”: The Inside Story of the U.S. Embassy Assault in Baghdad

“Benghazi Definitely Crossed Everyone’s Mind”: The Inside Story of the U.S. Embassy Attack in Baghdad

It was a balmy, overcast New Yr’s Eve in Baghdad in 2019, and 6 Diplomatic Safety brokers have been heading off enraged Iraqi protestors making an attempt to surge into their compound. The Iraqis had began by throwing Molotov cocktails over the perimeter wall, in an obvious try and set hearth to the embassy’s gasoline depot. Now they have been making an attempt to pressure open two doorways on both aspect of the compound’s northeastern gate.

Particular agent Michael Yohey, a 43-year-old Military veteran from Fredericksburg, Va., may hear loads of chaotic chatter over his radio about protestors making an attempt to get in. He rushed towards the northernmost embassy gate to affix a handful of safety contractors who have been already there, making an attempt to beat again dozens of Iraqi protestors who had compelled open doorways on both aspect of the gate. However the worst had already occurred: the embassy compound had been breached.

The Diplomatic Safety brokers entrusted with defending the sprawling 104-acre embassy advanced on the western banks of the Tigris River knew Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias have been spoiling for a combat. There had been demonstrations since U.S. airstrikes killed a number of of their members. However the Individuals hadn’t heard any phrase of a plot in opposition to their embassy. And so they had no technique to know that Iraqi safety forces, their host nation counterparts entrusted with maintaining the surface of the embassy protected, would yield and let hundreds of indignant protestors pour into the worldwide zone that housed the primary U.S. diplomatic and navy compounds.

It was a fastidiously orchestrated assault that escalated the tit-for-tat shadow battle between the U.S. and Iran, with Iraq serving as a battleground and punching bag, sufferer and instigator. For years, Iran has been smuggling weapons throughout the nation to arm its proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon, and the Trump Administration has appeared the opposite approach as Israeli aerial bombardments destroyed a lot of these shipments inside Iraq, in keeping with senior U.S. and Iraqi officers, talking anonymously to explain the controversial operations that Israeli officers have declined to verify. Within the final months of 2019, Iranian-backed militia teams countered by stepping up rocket and mortar assaults on U.S. diplomatic and navy websites, and on Dec. 27, a barrage of these rockets killed an American contractor and injured 4 U.S troops. Two days later, the Trump Administration answered with U.S. strikes in Syria and inside Iraq, killing no less than 25 members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia group that was a part of Iraq’s safety forces and underneath the nominal management of the Iraqi prime minister.

Ameer Al Mohmmedaw—picture-alliance/dpa/APProtesters participate in an illustration in opposition to lethal U.S. airstrikes, in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019.

The reply to that was a funeral march on New Yr’s Eve for Shia militiamen killed in these U.S. airstrikes. It shortly threatened to overwhelm the U.S. embassy’s defenses, which have been by no means designed for an onslaught by hundreds of protestors with none assist from the host nation. Within the frantic opening hours of what turned a two-day standoff, the handful of Diplomatic Safety brokers that led the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would take into consideration Benghazi – the Sept. 11, 2012 militant assault disguised as a protest that overran the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and price the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three different Individuals.

The six brokers, who led the embassy’s emergency response staff of roughly two dozen safety contractors that day, have now been nominated for federal regulation enforcement awards for his or her bravery. For roughly ten hours, they staved off hundreds of protestors that got here at them in waves, lobbing flaming gasoline bombs and chunks of damaged concrete. Nobody died. Not one of the dozen or so Marines stationed on rooftop posts overlooking the protests opened hearth. The Diplomatic Safety particular brokers, their groups, and the U.S. navy commanders of their compound only a few hundred yards away knew one flawed transfer may have turned the indignant protest right into a massacre, and kicked off a wider conflagration and direct fight between the U.S. and Iran.

“They have been making an attempt to get us to kill one among them,” says one among two senior safety officers that took half that day, who spoke anonymously to explain the riots that threatened within the first hour to overwhelm the compound’s defenses. This account of the fraught hours on the U.S. embassy is predicated interviews with the six brokers who have been on the entrance strains of the protests, their award quotation, and interviews with different senior U.S. officers who have been a part of the response.

“They’re over the bridge”

It was a Tuesday morning, and the Diplomatic Safety brokers knew that Iraqi militiamen had began their funeral march close to the middle of the capital, on a street on the opposite aspect of the broad, muddy Tigris River, throughout from the worldwide zone that housed the embassy and key Iraqi authorities places of work and residences. They have been on alert, however they weren’t particularly apprehensive; they thought Iraqi safety forces would hold the indignant marchers from coming over the closely guarded bridge that marks the doorway from town heart to the federal government space. The worldwide zone, as soon as known as the “Inexperienced Zone,” is now not crammed with canyon-like excessive blast partitions because it was when U.S. forces occupied the nation. A lot of the worldwide zone’s partitions have been dismantled by 2019, however there have been nonetheless a number of key safety chokepoints the place Iraqi safety forces may management the general public’s entry.

A bit earlier than 10:30 that morning, Particular Agent John Huey, 41, bought a name from an Iraqi safety official he’d befriended. They’re coming over the bridge, the Iraqi stated, and there’s nothing we are able to do. Someplace within the senior ranks of Iraqi authorities, officers had determined to permit the marchers via.

The brokers, most of whom have been of their command heart contained in the compound, watched incredulously via the safety cameras that studded the outside of the embassy compound. A whole lot, then hundreds, of Iraqi protestors stuffed Al Kindi Road, a large and usually empty avenue outdoors the embassy. “It occurred in a short time from this group marching on their funeral procession parallel to the embassy. The subsequent factor I heard is, ‘Oh, they’re on the bridge…They’re over the bridge,” remembers Huey, an Atlanta native and the incident commander for what was to unfold that day. “They have been simply merely allowed to drive in.”

At first, the protestors appeared like they have been planning a peaceable demonstration, placing up tents and political banners. They hung a large militia flag on an condominium constructing throughout Al Kindi Road, one among a number of tower blocks within the authorities space that housed Iraqis necessary sufficient to benefit a house inside the semi-protected worldwide zone.

Agent Thomas Kurtzweil, 42, had headed to the “Blue” gate as a part of the brokers’ choreographed safety plan. The previous U.S. Military infantry officer from North Carolina had seen fight in Iraq within the yr after the 2003 invasion. Now he watched the protestors arrange via the bulletproof home windows of the gate’s small fortified reception constructing that embassy guests would move via. “I noticed them deliver up vans with tents that they have been offloading, and I used to be like, ‘Nicely, they’re gonna be right here for some time,’” he says.

The condominium constructing advanced, which confronted the embassy, shortly turned a de facto base of operations for the combination of Shia militia teams that had gathered in entrance of the embassy to vent their rage. It was the first of three days of mourning declared by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was livid that the Individuals had killed members of the Widespread Mobilization Forces that have been technically underneath his management. That pressure, comprising greater than a dozen principally Shia militia teams, had been key to turning the tide in opposition to the Islamic State, which follows a violent, apocalyptic model of Sunni Islam. Roughly a 3rd of the Shia teams have been suggested and provided by Iran, which additionally cultivated a detailed relationship with the storied ISIS-fighting Iraqi militia commander Gen. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. After their success in opposition to ISIS, the prime minister was loath to dismantle such a preferred pressure in a rustic that’s two-thirds Shia, so he introduced the teams underneath the Iraqi safety companies umbrella, regardless of protests by Sunni and different Iraqi minority teams. Now a few of these militiamen have been doing Tehran’s bidding, vying for extra monetary help from Iran by attacking U.S. targets, in keeping with senior U.S. Administration and navy officers, talking anonymously to debate intelligence intercepts of militia communications with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

It appeared apparent to the Diplomatic Safety brokers that the militia members had fastidiously plotted out the assault. Not lengthy after organising their tents, they started systematically taking out the embassy’s exterior safety cameras, says particular agent Ian Mackenzie, 35, a former Missouri police officer. “They have been going round with massive poles and pulling down the cameras to restrict our views on the surface of what was happening.”

The Individuals contained in the embassy have been now on excessive alert, and following a set of emergency protocols they’d rehearsed a number of occasions. Diplomats have been “ducking and masking” in protected areas away from the road.

Diplomatic Safety particular agent Evan Tsurumi, 41, who led the embassy’s fast response pressure that day, joined an embassy marksman on a rooftop to get an aerial view of the gang. At that time, the gang hadn’t but turned violent. Tsurumi, a former NY city paramedic and Navy corpsman, noticed hundreds gathered outdoors, some carrying flags and some carrying weapons. They have been principally younger males of their early 20s, a few of them sporting their forces’ uniforms. “They have been very disciplined and so they had an agenda,” he says, on a current video name with TIME, along with different brokers.

Protesters run from tear gas at the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, Dec. 31, 2019.
Khalid Mohammed—APProtesters run from tear fuel on the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, Dec. 31, 2019.

The gang’s temper modified quick. Slightly greater than an hour after they arrived, the protestors, shouting “Loss of life to America,” gathered on the northeast finish of the U.S. Embassy compound, and began lobbing Molotov cocktails – flaming bottles crammed with gasoline – on the embassy’s gasoline depot simply contained in the wall. It was a strategic goal that U.S. particular brokers say the protestors will need to have chosen properly prematurely, hoping to begin a fireplace that will lead to an enormous explosion.

Huey and particular agent Mike Ross, a 37-year-old Marine reservist, ran in the direction of the gasoline farm, the place the embassy’s firemen — a combination of American and international contractors — have been already making an attempt to place out the blaze across the tanks earlier than it ignited the gasoline inside.

“We have been dodging rocks,” Huey says, “a surprisingly huge quantity of rocks and Molotov cocktails.” Not less than they have been making an attempt to dodge them. Each agent and safety pressure member defending the primary gates that day bought hit by some type of flying projectile—chunks of brick or pavement the protestors dug out of the street outdoors the embassy, or baseball-sized rocks the rioters apparently introduced with them from outdoors the worldwide zone. The rocks principally bounced off the American staff’s military-style helmets and bulletproof vests, however have been nonetheless massive sufficient to rattle the mind, and lower and bruise legs and arms in what was to change into an hours-long combat.

It wasn’t instantly clear what number of attackers they have been dealing with, or what they have been making an attempt to do. “It was very tough to learn the scenario as a result of all of us on the bottom had loads of work to do, however we couldn’t actually see what was happening, on the surface,” says Ross. The brokers operated on the idea that the protestors deliberate to storm the compound. “We have been involved that…it could possibly be like Iran in ‘79, mainly simply being massively overwhelmed by the opposition that was outdoors the embassy,” says Tsurumi, referring to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when Iranian college students took 98 Individuals hostage. “We had many tons of of souls that we have been liable for, and that we most likely wouldn’t be capable to evacuate in time if we couldn’t maintain these guys off.”

After attacking the gasoline farm, the protestors moved down the embassy perimeter to their subsequent goal: the northeastern entrance, identified formally because the Crimson gate, one among three entrances they’d assault that day. The workers contained in the gate’s pillbox-like safety entrance had barricaded themselves inside, as their emergency protocol dictated, however the protestors have been in a position to pressure open two doorways on both aspect of the metal gate.

That’s when Yohey and his Iraqi translator rushed to the doorway in a loud-speaker-enabled automobile that they’d use to warn protestors the remainder of the day to stay away from the embassy, and radioed to all that it had been breached. Huey and Ross ran from the gasoline farm blaze to affix them, as did Tsurumi. “They’d additionally set hearth to a number of turbines, and so they have been nonetheless rolling the fuel bombs over the wall,” Tsurumi says. “And so they have been flooding via the gate.”

“Everybody calm the f-ck down!”

The handful of brokers and their embassy safety pressure roughly a dozen in all shaped a half-moon across the protestors who’d made it inside, and tried to push them out. They opened hearth with a spread of “non-lethal” weapons: tear fuel; “flash-bang” percussive grenades; and “stinger balls,” dense rubber balls fired from grenade launchers, often aimed on the floor to bounce up and smack the protestors within the knees or intestine.

Protestors burned an access control area at the U.S. embassy on Dec. 31, 2019.
Thomas Kurtzweil—Courtesy U.S. State DivisionProtestors destroyed the safety space on the U.S. embassy’s Crimson gate on Dec. 31, 2019.

They managed to pressure the primary wave again out into the road, however a second surge of about 50 protestors quickly compelled their approach in. Huey was involved his staff was about to be overrun — and if that occurred, he apprehensive that the safety staff on the embassy buildings above would make the decision to make use of deadly pressure, which he feared would draw hearth from armed militiamen he had noticed on the street, who had been cautious to not method the embassy compound. “We unleashed a very strong volley of less-than-lethal munitions on the gang,” Huey says, however the rioters simply stored coming.

That’s additionally when Huey noticed Iraqi counterterrorism troops making their approach from the road via the surging protestors. They have been making an attempt to get the militia members out of the compound. “And at that time, it turned very obvious to me that we wanted to regain management” whereas additionally giving the Iraqi counterterrorism forces some house to work their approach via the gang and persuade them to exit the compound.

Huey jumped between his line of brokers and guards, and the Iraqi protestors, and in a hoarse voice, shouted to all of them, “Everybody calm the f-ck down!” And everybody, together with the Iraqis, took a step again. It labored “surprisingly properly,” he remembers with a smile. “And all of us have been in a position to type of cease the aggressive onslaught that we had unleashed on these of us,” and the Iraqi counterterrorism troops have been in a position to shepherd the militiamen out.

That was within the first hour of what was to change into a day-long melee, with the protestors besieging the embassy gates in coordinated waves. Fifty or so protesters would surge on the gate after which fall again, changed by 50 extra, in keeping with a senior safety official who was monitoring the protest from the bottom throughout the road, talking on situation of anonymity. The Diplomatic Safety brokers have been finally in a position to pressure the gates shut.

“Benghazi undoubtedly crossed everybody’s thoughts”

Pushed again outdoors the compound partitions of the Crimson gate, the protestors moved right down to avenue to 2 different gates, the Blue and Consular entrances, destroying their reception buildings, then utilizing a steel roof from a solar shelter outdoors as a ramp to climb over the wall. The embassy workers inside these small, fortified reception buildings had already cleared out delicate paperwork and evacuated. At these different two gates, the protestors didn’t make it contained in the embassy compound in the identical numbers as on the Crimson gate, however they stored making an attempt for hours.

Special Agent Evan Tsurumi, front-center, helps to remove a burning obstacle during an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In the background, DSS Special Agent Mike Yohey and others examine ways to barricade an entrance at the embassy.
Mike Ross—Courtesy U.S. State Division DSS Particular Agent Evan Tsurumi, front-center, helps to take away a burning impediment throughout an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Within the background, DSS Particular Agent Mike Yohey and others study methods to barricade an entrance on the embassy.

“The remainder of the day was type of a standoff with varied breaks the place they’d probe totally different defenses, throw extra fuel bombs” and hundreds of baseball-sized rocks, Tsurumi says, describing the defensive mission as a marathon. “We have been alone there with none help for roughly 10 hours, you realize, simply working creatively.”

The brokers have been now additionally serving as firefighters, as their contractors weren’t paid to combat hearth whereas underneath assault. The rioters stored throwing Molotov cocktails over the wall the place numerous embassy autos have been parked, so Mackenzie, who had joined the combat on the Crimson gate, scrambled to seek out keys to the flaming autos, leap into them, and drive them away from the partitions with a view to put the fires out.

That violent first hour had shaken all of them. “Benghazi, undoubtedly…crossed everybody’s thoughts,” Mackenzie says.

What the brokers couldn’t know from their vantage level in the course of the combat on floor is that the U.S. navy had groups on standby in Iraq, the Gulf, Europe and even again within the U.S. to flood the embassy, guard the inside and evacuate the diplomats if want be, say each senior safety officers, talking on situation of anonymity to explain the response.

In Washington, Senior State Division officers, together with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iran envoy Brian Hook, have been watching the siege from a number of cameras that remained contained in the embassy, in addition to the navy’s cameras skilled on the road from the joint U.S.-Iraqi navy base, Union III, catty nook from the diplomatic compound on the other aspect of Al Kindi Road.

In Virginia, Michael Evanoff, the then-head of Diplomatic Safety, first bought the decision at his dwelling a bit previous three within the morning — round 10 a.m. Iraq time — simply because the marchers have been being allowed to cross the bridge and method the embassy. He drove straight to the Diplomatic Safety command heart in Rosslyn, Va., the place he may monitor what his brokers have been doing on the bottom. A former Diplomatic Safety agent with many years of expertise in battle zones, Evanoff had been employed in 2017 with one overriding order from the White Home: No extra “Benghazis.” The Trump Administration needed no extra U.S. diplomats misplaced due to indefensible diplomatic services.

Debris and burned items in the aftermath of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019.
Ian MacKenzie—Courtesy U.S. State DivisionParticles and burned gadgets within the aftermath of an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019.

Evanoff and his staff had deliberate for years on the way to keep away from repeating a Benghazi-style catastrophe, and this is able to be their check. That they had beefed up a number of layers of safety contained in the Baghdad embassy, as that they had at different high-threat posts, including a U.S. Marine Air Floor Activity Power staff along with the Marines who frequently shield embassies and the labeled materials inside. They drilled consistently on what to do if an embassy was overrun. “We’re armed to the enamel and we may shred them,” he says. “However we have been lucky sufficient to see that their intent was to harass.”

Sitting hundreds of miles away, Evanoff in Virginia, and Pompeo and the others watching from one other monitoring heart on the State Division, adopted the lead of probably the most senior officer on the bottom: Bryan Bachmann, the Diplomatic Safety agent working the Baghdad embassy command heart that day. It was Bachmann who determined his brokers and the Individuals’ emergency contractor safety pressure was dealing with the onslaught on the gates simply advantageous, and he made the essential name to keep away from bringing uniformed troops into the combat, judging that doing so may additional inflame the gang and switch it lethal, Evanoff says.

After Benghazi, embassies in battle zones like Iraq and Afghanistan had already been higher fortified, however Evanoff’s staff took that additional, putting in a number of rings of principally invisible safety. In Baghdad, the gate reception buildings that guests would move via, which the protestors penetrated and torched, have been designed to purchase lower than an hour of time for these inside to arrange the deadlier strains of protection, like the handfuls of Marines armed with heavy computerized weapons positioned on the rooftops. The harm to the three gates was round $20 million, one of many senior safety officers says, however that was deemed cash properly spent. It gave the protestors one thing to vent their rage on, and acquired time for these inside to arrange.

There have been some elements of Evanoff’s plan that didn’t work so properly. By some means, the mechanisms in no less than one of many enormous, multimillion-dollar gates bought caught, and the brokers had to determine the way to dismantle the controls to shut it. Agent Kurtzweil says a pointy knife proved the best choice, after which the brokers and their groups of safety contractors scoured the compound for empty transport containers, and arrange a brand new interior ring at every of the torched entrances. In response, related gates at different U.S. compounds around the globe have now been mounted, one of many safety officers says, and there’s a brand new normal working process for improvising new gates if a compound will get overwhelmed. Gas farms have additionally been fortified to face up to assault from the surface.

Ready it out

By dusk of the primary day, the brokers had secured the gates, and a number of Iraqi officers together with the Minister of Inside and Iraqi militia commander Common al-Muhandis had visited the protestors to calm them down. Iraqi officers inform TIME they labored as quick as they may to de-escalate the scenario, which they insist was extra symbolic than an precise hazard to these inside. An aide to then-Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi stated the U.S. airstrikes in opposition to militia members, carried out with out alerting the prime minister, had created a degree of anger inside authorities ranks that needed to be dealt with fastidiously.

Round midnight, the protestors stepped up their harassment once more, shouting “Blissful New Yr, Amriki!” to the brokers inside, earlier than firing commercial-grade fireworks first into the air, after which instantly on the Individuals. “Nevertheless it wasn’t a mortar or an RPG,” a rocket-propelled grenade, one of many safety officers says, and launching fireworks to harass these contained in the U.S. embassy and navy compounds was additionally a daily weekend prevalence, the second safety official says. So, the brokers simply hunkered down, and ready to place out any fires the incendiary volleys may begin.

Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Jan. 1, 2020.
Qassim Abdul-Zahra—APIraqi safety forces stand guard in entrance of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Jan. 1, 2020.

Day two of the protests felt extra like a PR train on the militia’s half, Huey says. Protestors milled about, listening to loud sound programs blaring patriotic militia music, whereas the Individuals, together with greater than 100 further Marines despatched by the Pentagon, principally waited it out. At one level, the Individuals fired tear fuel at an brisk group of protesters that had climbed atop one of many burned reception buildings, however for probably the most half, the battle was over. On the finish of the day, the protestors, heeding calls for from their very own militia leaders to cease, packed up their tents and departed.

That’s when the U.S. navy flooded the embassy with extra defenses, underneath cowl of darkness, in anticipation of the following spherical of payback, one of many senior safety officers says. On Jan. 3, a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani and the Iraqi militia Common al-Muhandis, whom U.S. officers held liable for planning the U.S. embassy assault.

However this time, protestors weren’t allowed to achieve the road outdoors the U.S. embassy. The Iraqi prime minister’s forces stored them out. Pompeo had warned him after the embassy breach on New Yr’s Eve that the U.S. would “shield and defend its individuals” if the embassy was attacked once more.

All through these two tense days, the brokers have been all getting frantic messages from family members again dwelling, watching the violence unfold because it was filmed by native and worldwide media, and the protestors themselves, in what was all in regards to the ritual humiliation of the Individuals inside. “My spouse was simply beside herself. It was completely terrifying for her,” Mackenzie says. When he returned to the U.S. weeks later, “she basically advised me, you’re not going again.” He hasn’t returned since, although Huey and a number of the different brokers have.

The six males have been simply named recipients of this yr’s Federal Legislation Enforcement Officers Affiliation Nationwide Award for Unusual Valor, and your entire Baghdad safety staff has been nominated for the State Division’s heroism award for maintaining their cool within the face of an opponent who was making an attempt to goad them into violence.

They knew if issues went flawed that night time, it may begin a battle, Huey says. “We knew what was at stake right here.” So, they stored their wits, and humorousness, provides Ross, with a remark that brings grins from all of the brokers. “If it’s gonna go down, I’m no less than taking place smiling.”