WASHINGTON (CN) — A high-ranking diplomatic security officer testified in a criminal trial Thursday about what he saw five years ago when attackers overran the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Alec Henderson operated security cameras for roughly 35 minutes on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, as forces allegedly led by defendant Ahmed Abu Khatallah killed four Americans in diplomatic compound and a nearby Central Intelligence Agency annex in Benghazi, Libya.
When it appeared that the attackers had retreated, Henderson said, he decided that sheltering in place — the protocol for a security breach — was no longer tenable.
By then flames fueled by diesel used to run a generator had destroyed one building on the grounds. And the villa where Stevens had holed up with foreign service officer Sean Smith was headed for a similar fate.
Henderson lost contact with them 10 minutes after the attack started, he testified. As he approached the burning building, unaware that anyone had died, he was determined to find Stevens and Smith. The ceiling collapsed as he entered, forcing him to reenter through an escape hatch. There, he found Smith’s body.
“He was so covered in soot I couldn’t recognize him,” Henderson said.
Stepping over Smith to get inside, Henderson said, darkness enveloped him, with a stench of acidic diesel fumes.
“The heat is intense. It sears your eyes, it sears your lungs,” he said. “I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. I backed out.”
He ran to the swimming pool, dipped a shirt in water and wrapped it around his face to filter the smoke. He got farther in on the second try because he could breathe better, but he couldn’t see because the fumes irritated his eyes. He yelled for the ambassador, stomped on the ground and felt around, but had to go back outside.
He asked for an escape mask to make a third attempt but was warned, “There’s no good air in there. You’re going to die.”
Henderson said he went back in anyway and stayed for nearly two minutes before he felt the effects of oxygen deprivation, and had to leave. Had he stayed, he said, “It’s a drag on everybody else. They’ve got one more person to worry about, one more person they’ve got to recover.”
More than an hour after the attack began, the security chief warned Henderson that the situation was deteriorating. He testified that the chief told him: “‘You guys gotta get the fuck out of here.’
“We begrudgingly made preparations to leave,” Henderson said.
Loaded into a Land Cruiser and rolling through the compound, they immediately received fire. Henderson said the bullets sounded like flicking quarters in the bullet-resistant car.
His testimony topped off the first week of the murder and terrorism conspiracy trial of Khatallah, the accused ringleader.
Attorneys for Khatallah, 46, say the government is scapegoating him for the actions of others. Khatallah had gone to the compound out of curiosity, they said, and directed traffic during the chaos.
Khatallah, who has pleaded not guilty to 18 charges, entered the compound after the attack stopped and the Americans had left, his attorneys said.
Although the government has no eyewitnesses to the mortar launches, prosecutors have said they will show that Khatallah had connections to key figures in the attacks, had access to mortars, and had trained his men to use them.
One of his associates was caught on surveillance footage entering an office at the diplomatic compound removing sensitive items, including a map with coordinates for the CIA annex, prosecutors said.
Prosecutor Opher Shweiki played clips from the compound’s security cameras to supplement Henderson’s testimony Thursday afternoon.
At 9:42 p.m., a camera by the front gate of the compound showed a police vehicle leave just before the attack started. After that, several security guards ran from the front gate as the attack got under way. A flash of light, which Henderson said was an explosion, could be seen at the end of the video clip.
Another video showed shrapnel and smoke from a second explosion near one of the security cameras.
Two minutes later, Henderson said, he got his first view of armed attackers storming the compound. He said he had ordered all personnel to shelter in place.
One clip showed a group of attackers outside the compound, some wearing traditional garments, others wearing military fatigues or T-shirts and pants.
Some had their faces covered with scarves. That, Henderson recalled, had concerned him.
“It’s a way to obscure their identity so they can wreak havoc,” he said.
Other clips showed armed attackers trying to bust down the door of the tactical operations center, where Henderson had watched the cameras. Two and three at a time, the attackers unsuccessfully ran at the door trying to use the force of their bodies to break in.
Henderson will resume his testimony next Tuesday or Wednesday, prosecutors said when the hearing wrapped up for the day.
Congressional Republicans made the attack a political issue for years, claiming that as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton should have been able to prevent it.