Benghazi timeline: How the attack unfolded

An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012. US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three of his colleagues were killed in an attack on the consulate in the eastern Libyan city by Islamists outraged over an amateur American-made Internet video mocking Islam. Stevens died less than six months after being appointed to his post. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Since the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead, questions have persisted over what happened that night, whether there was adequate security at the compound and the manner in which the Obama administration initially characterized the attack.

Below is an account, compiled by CBS News, from sources who spoke to us in Washington and Benghazi about the attack in that eastern Libyan city, and the events leading up to the attack.

Security Incidents Prior to the Benghazi Attack

December 2011: Terror plot thwarted, but Benghazi emergency plan warns of many Islamic terrorists still operating in area.

March 2012: U.S. Embassy in Tripoli lead security officer, RSO Eric Nordstrom, requests additional security but later testified he received no response.

April 10, 2012: An explosive device is thrown at a convoy carrying U.N. envoy Ian Martin.

May 22, 2012: A rocket-propelled grenade hits the offices of the International Red Cross.

June 6, 2012: An IED explodes outside the Benghazi consulate compound.

June 11, 2012: An RPG hits a convoy carrying the British Ambassador. The U.K. closes its consulate. Col. Wood, military Site Security Team (SST) commander, is in Benghazi, and helps with emergency response.

July 2012: RSO Nordstrom again requests additional security (perhaps via cable signed by Amb. Stevens dated July 9, see below).

July 9, 2012: Amb. Stevens sends a cable requesting continued help from military SST and State Dept. MSD (Mobile Security Deployment team) through mid-Sept. 2012, saying that benchmarks for a drawdown have not been met. The teams are not extended.

Early August: State Dept. removes the last of three 6-man State Dept. security teams and a 16-man military SST team from Libya.

August 2, 2012: Ambassador Stevens sends a cable to D.C. requesting "protective detail bodyguard postions" -- saying the added guards "will fill the vaccum of security personnel currently at post... who will be leaving with the next month and will not be replaced." He called "the security condition in Libya ... unpredictable, volatile and violent."

August 8, 2012: A cable from Amb. Stevens to D.C. says "a series of violent incidents has dominated the political landscape" and calls them "targeted and discriminate attacks."

Aug. 27, 2012: The State Department issues a travel warning for Libya citing the threat of assassination and car bombings in Benghazi/Tripoli.

Timeline of 9/11 Consulate Attack As It Unfolds

September 11, 2012: 9:43 a.m. Benghazi time (3:43 ET): Amb. Stevens sent cables to D.C., including a Benghazi weekly report of security incidents reflecting Libyans' "growing frustration with police and security forces who were too weak to keep the country secure."

Hours before the assault, nearly 750 miles away in Cairo, events were taking shape that would inform the early narrative surrounding the events in Benghazi:

Around 12:00 p.m. (6:00 a.m. ET): The U.S. Embassy in Cairo releases a statement on its website disavowing a YouTube film named "Innocence of Muslims," which mocks the Prophet Mohammad. Later that afternoon, protesters who had gathered outside the embassy compound stormed the gates and tore the American flag down, replacing it with a black Salafist flag.

Around 9:00 p.m. (3:00 p.m. ET): In the walled Benghazi compound, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens says good night to the Turkish Ambassador Ali Kemal Aydin and retires to his room in Building C, a large residence with numerous bedrooms and a safe haven.

There are three other structures in the compound: Building B, a residence with bedrooms and a cantina and dining room; a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) located across from building B, containing offices, one bedroom and security cameras; and barracks located by the front gate, staffed by Libyan security guards.

At this time, there are five diplomatic security agents (DS) on site - three based in Benghazi and two traveling with Stevens. According to a U.S. State Department account given Oct. 9 there was "nothing unusual outside of the gates. "

9:40 p.m. (3:40 p.m. ET): Gunfire and an explosion are heard. A TOC agent sees dozens of armed people over security camera flowing through a pedestrian gate at the compound's main entrance. It is not clear how the gate was opened.

The agent hits the alarm and alerts the CIA security team in the nearby annex and the Libyan 17th of February Brigade, one of several powerful militias serving as a de facto security presence in Benghazi. The embassy in Tripoli and the State Dept. command center were also alerted.

State Dept. Diplomatic Security follows events in real time on a listen-only, audio-only feed, according to testimony of Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant director for international programs, given before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Oct 10.

Around 10 p.m. (4 p.m. ET): At the compound, several DS agents leave to get tactical gear from Building B. One stays in Building C with Ambassador Stevens and Information Officer Sean Smith. The mob sets fire to the 17th of February Brigade barracks on site.

DS agent Scott Strickland moves Stevens and Smith to the closest area "safe haven" in Building C.

The other agents, currently in Building B and the TOC come under attack.

The attackers gets into Building C, lights furniture on fire, then the building's exterior. Stevens, Smith and Agent Strickland move to the bathroom and lay on floor but decide to leave safe haven after being overcome by smoke.

Strickland goes out an emergency escape window. Stevens and Smith do not follow. Strickland returns several times but can't find them in the overwhelming smoke. He goes up to the roof and radios the other agents.

Three agents return to Building C via armored vehicle. They search and find Smith's body, but not Stevens.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is told of the incident "shortly after it began at 4 p.m.," CBS News' Margaret Brennan reported Sept. 14. Clinton spoke to the Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf to "enlist his full support."

Meanwhile, the U.S. military began moving an unarmed drone over Benghazi to provide real-time intelligence to the CIA team on the ground. It would take roughly an hour to arrive.

10:05 p.m. (4:05 p.m. ET): An alert from the State Department Operations Center is issued to a number of government and intelligence agencies, including the White House Situation Room, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the FBI. "US Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack" -- "approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well. Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and four COM (Chief of Mission/embassy) personnel are in the compound safe haven."

10:25 p.m. (4:25 p.m. ET): A six-member CIA team arrives from the annex with 40 to 60 members of 17th of February Brigade. The team removes Smith's body.

Around 10:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET): Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his top military adviser learn of the incident.

10:54 p.m. (4:54 p.m. ET): An alert from the State Dept. Operations Center: "the firing... in Benghazi has stopped. A response team is on site attempting to locate COM personnel."

11 p.m. (5 p.m. ET): Just ahead of the weekly meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon tells President Obama of the attack and the fire at the main villa. The president and those officials discuss possible responses to the situation.

At the compound, the 17th of February Brigade says they can't hold the perimeter and withdraws.

DS agents make final search for Stevens and leave with the CIA team in an armored vehicle heading for the annex, taking fire along the way.

Of note, when CBS News' Elizabeth Palmer visited the compound in one of several trips to Libya, she found little evidence of an extensive firefight at the compound's walls and main gate, likely indicating the fiercest fighting occurred away from the compound.

Midnight (6 p.m. ET) Agents arrive at the annex, which receives sporadic small-arms fire and RPG rounds over a roughly 90-minute period. The security team returns fire and the attackers disperse.

Over the next two hours, Sec. Panetta holds a series of meetings and issues several orders: Two Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) platoons stationed in Rota, Spain prepare to deploy - one to Benghazi and the other to the Embassy in Tripoli; A special operations team in Europe is ordered to move to Sigonella, Sicily - less than one hour's flight away from Benghazi; An additional special operations team based in the U.S. is ordered to deploy to Sigonella.

12:07 a.m. (6:07 p.m. ET): An alert from the State Dept. Operations Center states that the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reports the Islamic military group "Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibilty for Benghazi Attack"... "on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli."

Around 12:30 a.m. (6:30 p.m. ET): A six-man security team, including two Defense Dept. personnel, leave Embassy Tripoli for Benghazi.

1:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. ET): The U.S. security team from Embassy Tripoli lands in Benghazi and learn that the ambassador is missing. They try to arrange for transportation into town, with the goal of locating Stevens.

4:07 a.m. (10:07 p.m. ET): Secretary Clinton issues a statement acknowledging the death of one State Dept. officer.

5:00 a.m. (11:00 p.m.): A second U.S. Predator drone arrives to relieve the first.

5:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m. ET): The U.S. Regional Security Office in Tripoli gets a phone call from an Arabic-speaking source who says a Westerner has been found in Benghazi and is perhaps at a hospital. It's believed to be Ambassador Stevens. Transfer to airport is arranged.

At around the same time, the additional security team finds transportation from the airport under the escort of the Libyan Shield, another local militia, but decides to head to the annex after learning that Stevens was almost certainly dead. Just after their arrival, the annex takes mortar fire, sustaining three direct hits. The precision of the attacks indicates a level of sophistication and coordination.

Former U.S. Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty are killed in the mortar assault, which lasts just 11 minutes before dissipating; a DS agent and annex security member are severely wounded.

After the mortar attack, about 30 Americans evacuate the annex and head to the airport, with the assistance of the Libyan security convoy.

Ambassador Stevens is confirmed dead later that morning, as Americans see his body at the airport

Around 7:40 a.m. (1:40 a.m. ET): Unable to fit on one plane, the first wave of Americans - consisting of U.S. diplomats and civilians - departs Benghazi and heads to Tripoli, leaving behind security staff and bodies.

Around 10:00 a.m. (4 a.m. ET): The second flight leaves Benghazi for Tripoli with U.S. security members and bodies.

President Obama is told of Stevens' death. State Department tells all diplomatic posts around the world to review their security posture and to take all necessary steps to enhance it

Around 7 p.m. (1 p.m. ET): Americans are transported out of Tripoli on a C-17 military aircraft, heading for Ramstein, Germany.

Around 8 p.m. (2 p.m. ET): U.S. special forces team arrives in Sigonella, Sicily, becoming the first military unit in the region.

Around 9 p.m. (3 p.m. ET): A FAST platoon arrives in Tripoli.

10:19 p.m. (4:19 p.m. ET) The C-17 carrying Stevens' body and the other Americans arrives in Ramstein.

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