The Benghazi That Wasn't: How One Man Saved The American Embassy In Yemen
In September 2008, seven militants in Sanaa killed themselves and 12 others in the deadliest assault on a U.S. Embassy in a decade. And if not for an unlikely hero, things would have been unimaginably worse.
On the morning he died, Mukhtar al-Faqih was in a hurry. He had been up all night laughing and joking with nearly a dozen men, all of whom were spread out on cushions around him, smoking and pulling bundles of leaves out of clear plastic bags. Most of them had been chewing for hours, working off the Ramadan meal by methodically polishing and plucking the softest leaves from each stem before tossing what was left on the floor. The piles of discards had grown steadily throughout the night, gradually forming a series of uneven waves that the barefoot men trudged through on their way to the bathroom. Occasionally someone dropped an empty water bottle into the mix. Mukhtar loved the ebb and flow of qat chews like this, the fluid early moments when conversations weaved and looped around one another full of polished humor and bite, and then the more reflective, final hours when each chewer retreated deep into his own private world. It was even better during Ramadan, when Yemenis flipped their schedules and went nocturnal as a way of adjusting to the dawn-to-dusk fast that Islam required. Midnight chews were a Ramadan treat, a holiday indulgence. But now it was time for Mukhtar to go to work, and he was trying to get the attention of the one man in the room who wasn’t chewing: his younger brother Fahd.
The two had grown up together in Kuwait, where their father worked a series of odd jobs during the late 1980s before moving the family back to Yemen. And they had always been close, carbon copies of each other born five years apart. At 28, Mukhtar had lost some of the leanness of youth to full cheeks and a slight paunch, but he still maintained a touch of the nonconformist streak he had always displayed, wearing his hair long and slicked back along with a sprinkled black goatee. Fahd admired his brother’s easy way with people, the quick smile and deep laugh that paired well with his consistent generosity. In 2000, when he was a high school sophomore, Fahd moved in with Mukhtar. For the next three years, Mukhtar looked after his younger brother, making sure he got to bed on time and paying his bills. Five years later, not much had changed. Fahd was 23 with a good job and a wife, but Mukhtar still worried about him.
Almost as soon as he walked in the questions started. “When did you get here?” Mukhtar asked. “When did you leave?”
Fahd rattled off the times, while Mukhtar moved the TV so he could sit in the place of honor. As Fahd’s speed sunk in, Mukhtar asked one more question: “Who was driving?”
“I was,” Fahd replied.
“It’s already done,” Fahd smiled. “I’m here.”
Mukhtar just looked at him. “Don’t do that again.”
Fahd tried to laugh it off, but Mukhtar kept staring. “Don’t do that again,” he repeated. Mukhtar held the look for another beat before his reserve finally broke and he started to smile. The brothers were friends once more, and for the rest of the night they reconnected with inside jokes and private memories, snorting juice as they laughed in the corner.
Over the years, the two had developed their own language of hand gestures and facial expressions for settings like this, when Yemen’s lack of private space made communication difficult. And that night they ran through them all, quickly slipping back into boyhood code. When Mukhtar was ready to leave, he got Fahd’s attention by running two fingers across his mouth and up over his nose. Fahd knew exactly what he meant.
Fahd nodded and followed his brother outside. “How much do you need?” he asked.
“Two thousand,” Mukhtar replied, holding up the same two fingers — about $10. Then: “Where are you going?”
“Get in,” Mukhtar said with a gesture at his rusted out 1984 Toyota Cressida. “I’ll take you.”
Fahd’s money went to gas, and as they pulled out of the station, Mukhtar jockeyed the car through the late-night Ramadan traffic and toward the family’s apartment on the edge of Sanaa. It wasn’t a great neighborhood, the broken roads more gravel and dirt than cement and the speckled poverty that came from years of litter and neglect, but it was home. Mukhtar eased the car over to the side, and for the first time in months the brothers were alone.
“I was going to leave tomorrow,” Fahd replied. After so much time away, he wanted to see the rest of the family, who were spending Ramadan in their tribal village a few hours south of Sanaa. Mukhtar asked him to wait another day.
The two chatted a bit longer, as the car ticked and settled around them, making plans to meet up when Mukhtar got off. It was just before 3 a.m. when Fahd got out and walked around the front of the car for a few more words at Mukhtar’s window.
They never really said good-bye; their conversation just tapered off and Mukhtar pulled away. Fifteen yards down the road he realized his mistake. Mukhtar’s taillights flashed red and a single arm stretched out the window. It hovered there for a few seconds, and then it was gone.
The morning call to prayer went off at what Islamic scholars call “true dawn,” when the first, faint glimmer of the sun’s light starts to spread horizontally across the sky. From their post outside the U.S. Embassy, the local guards couldn’t see much. Modern cities had too much light pollution to make out the pre-light from the east. But they heard the electric murmur of loudspeakers being switched on and then the opening lines that cracked through the darkness: "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar."
The day had begun. There would be no more food or water until sunset, more than 13 hours away, when the mosques came back to life for the fourth prayer of the day. Like nearly everyone else in Yemen, the men had just finished their pre-fast meal, a little ballast for the day to come. Mukhtar had eaten quickly and then slipped off to rest.
But now it was time to recite their prayers, and the rest of the guards were debating waking him. They knew he was tired, but they were tired too; and he really needed to pray.
Inside the guard post, where he was trying to nap, Mukhtar could hear snatches of their conversation. Finally, frustrated and tired, he shouted at the door, “I prayed.”
Outside the voices fell silent. The men would let him rest.
A few miles across town, Nicholas Collura was minutes into his commute. A former high school wrestler and football star in upstate New York, the 36-year-old regional security officer still had the abbreviated neck and extended chest of a serious weightlifter. He liked the 40 minutes in his Toyota Land Cruiser every morning. The drive gave him time to think and plan his day.
And this morning there was plenty to think about. A few days earlier, his counterpart at the British Embassy had forwarded him a copy of an Arabic letter, warning of car bombs if a cell of al-Qaeda prisoners weren't immediately released. Threats were nothing new in Yemen; the U.S. Embassy had been on high alert for months. Back in the U.S., where Barack Obama and John McCain were slugging it out on the campaign trail over Guantanamo and the war in Iraq, Yemen was rarely mentioned.
But on the ground in Sanaa, things looked different. Al-Qaeda was growing, and American diplomats worked inside a bull's-eye. Just like airplanes, embassies were always a target. They were America’s face to the world, sovereign territory in a foreign country. Which is why the specificity of the letter — car bombs targeting embassies — was such a cause for concern. But that was part of the problem. If you were always on alert, you were never really on alert. The U.S. had already used up all its moves, maxing out the threat level over the summer. The only thing left for Collura to do was help with a cable and worry.
Besides, the letter was just one more thing on top of all the other normal frustrations of life in Yemen. A week earlier, Yemeni security had reopened the road in front of the embassy without consulting Collura or his staff. The Yemenis were always pulling stunts like that, little passive-aggressive jabs just to let the Americans know they could. Reopening the road was one of their favorites.
The official reason was that residents who lived near the embassy complained about delays and hassles when the road was blocked, but Collura knew better. He hated these bureaucratic games. He was responsible for the safety and security of the embassy, and he wanted the road locked down.
Part of him wondered what he was doing in Yemen. He had never expected to live abroad. Growing up, all he had ever wanted to be was a cop, a detective like Kojak on TV. He lost hours of his childhood watching Telly Savalas crack cases on CBS, and then even more time mimicking the star’s accent and New York City swagger. When Kojak jumped through a plate glass window on television, Collura crashed through one at home.
Fourteen years later, the stitches long since healed, he was still imitating his hero. He graduated college with a degree in criminal justice, and headed off to Florida to attend the police academy. His first assignment was as a road cop in Titusville, Fla. Then came a promotion to detective, undercover work in narcotics, and, eventually, specialized training and time on a task force. But by the 1990s, reality had overtaken the Kojak dream, and when a friend pitched him on diplomatic security, Collura was ready for a change. He submitted his application and waited. For two years there was nothing, just the bureaucratic silence of a hiring freeze. Collura plodded along, biding his time and doing his duty. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was a bodyguard, protecting Gov. Jeb Bush’s son. Three months later, with the bureaucratic wheels spinning once more, he joined the State Department, trading in his decade of experience as a police officer for a position in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. But seven years into the new job, Sanaa was only his third foreign posting and he was still adjusting to life in the Yemeni capital.
Mornings were the worst. The screeching feedback of mosque loudspeakers interrupted his sleep, reminding him of how far from home he was and how much he missed his wife and kids. Throughout the spring and early summer, the call to prayer crept earlier each day, moving forward in incremental leaps, as the days grew longer. The fall was better, but even in September the noise started before 5 a.m.
Sanaa had looked deserted as Collura passed through the security checkpoint on his way out of the housing compound, a ghost city of more than 2 million. The lack of Ramadan traffic made his drive easier. But it also made him wary. In the empty streets his vintage Land Cruiser stood out. Collura never took the same route to work twice in a row, part of the security precautions of living in a hostile environment. That morning he skirted the back of the old city, glancing over at the towering gingerbread houses Sanaa had made famous. It was a nice drive, and on Sept. 17, it was smooth and easy.
At 60, Ambassador Stephen Seche preferred routine. He had arrived in Yemen a year earlier — his first posting as an ambassador — and nearly every morning since he had woken up around 6 a.m. and walked across the compound to the embassy’s gym. Retracing his steps, he would have a cup of coffee with his cereal in the residence’s tiny upstairs kitchen before showering and heading to the office to read the overnight cable traffic from Washington.
Sept. 17 was no different. Even though he was scheduled to fly to Cairo for a week of vacation with his wife and his brother’s family, Seche wanted to keep as much of his morning schedule as possible before leaving for the airport.
It had been an intense couple of weeks. For the first time since 2001, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was scheduled to fall during Ramadan, a prospect that made the normally skittish intelligence community even more anxious. In early September, analysts started to panic after al-Ikhlas, a prominent online Islamist forum, posted a banner ad atop its homepage, teasing a “special” message from Osama bin Laden. According to the flashing Arabic script, the tape would be released on Sept. 11 to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the attacks. Bin Laden had taunted the U.S. before, tipping upcoming attacks through clothes and props. For example, prior to the USS Cole attack in Yemen he appeared in a video wearing a jambiyya, a distinctive Yemeni dagger. Was he doing something similar here? Maybe sending coded, last-minute instructions to operatives abroad?
No one knew for certain, but the flashing banner ad was too blatant to ignore. On the evening of Sept. 10, just hours before the tape was due to be released, someone knocked al-Ikhlas offline. The U.S. never officially took credit for the cyberstrike, but to most observers it looked like a National Security Agency operation. Regardless of who was behind the attack, al-Ikhlas was down, bin Laden’s tape was delayed, and Sept. 11 passed without incident.
In Yemen, Seche breathed a sigh of relief. The non-attack was the latest piece of good news. In mid-August, Yemeni soldiers had taken down an al-Qaeda safe house in a small town hundreds of miles east of Sanaa. Days later, the State Department had eased official travel restrictions, lifting the ordered departure that had been in place for months and allowing all nonessential staff to return to Yemen. Seche had lobbied hard for the change. He liked normal, and a reduced embassy was tough on everyone. Morale had dipped during the summer as the employees left behind struggled to make up for their missing friends. Seche had felt their absence as much as anyone. His wife worked as a nurse at the embassy and she had been forced to relocate back to Washington along with everyone else.
She made it back to Yemen just in time for his 60th birthday. The two had spent a quiet evening with a trio of diplomatic couples, and now they were ready for a vacation. Seche, who had joined the foreign service three decades earlier out of a desire to see the world, was especially looking forward to taking the boat from Cairo to Luxor and walking through the Valley of the Kings. His bags were already packed and in the car. On his pocket schedule he’d scrawled himself a little reminder: “10:00 a.m. — Depart EMB.” He just wanted to send a few emails first.
The whole thing was a little slice of America on a Tuesday night abroad. But the next morning they were back in Yemen. The call to prayer went off at 4:40 a.m., and then the rooster next door started to crow, a reedy squawking that came and went, mixing with the electrical screeching and making it impossible to sleep. Schwein hated that rooster. Every morning, whether he had work or not, it woke him up. Sometimes he told people it was an al-Qaeda plant, a daily irritant designed to drive him mad, but mostly he just endured in silence.
A former Army Ranger and intel officer in the 101st Airborne Division, Schwein was halfway through his tour in Yemen. Almost from the beginning, it had been a rough posting. Two days after he'd landed, on March 16, 2008, a local al-Qaeda cell had tried to shell the embassy with a handful of modified missiles. The missiles fell short of their target, hitting a girls’ school and wounding several of the students instead. Next came an amateurish attack on the main embassy housing compound in suburban Sanaa, and the ordered departure of all nonessential embassy employees.
Schwein had resigned his military commission two decades earlier to avoid exactly this type of lifestyle, flitting around the world to unaccompanied posts, a married man with a bachelor’s life. He hadn’t wanted it for his wife, and he hadn’t wanted it for himself. Instead he’d gone into the family business, following his parents into the FBI. When he graduated from training school in 1988, his father walked up to him and said, “I’m proud of you.”
The words meant a lot to Schwein. His father had always been sparing with his praise, and to have his pride was no small thing. And for a while Schwein’s career resembled his father’s, chasing bank robbers and catching bad guys. But after Sept. 11, the bureau’s focus shifted, and Schwein got pulled back into the Middle East, where he had spent much of his military service. He was posted to Iraq during the worst of the war and, eventually, Yemen.
In Yemen, his life held to an odd rhythm: long and often frustrating hours interacting with Yemeni counterparts in the Interior Ministry followed by more frustration trying to explain the realities of life on the ground to the office back in the U.S. Schwein liked to unwind, squeezing in some time at the gym whenever he could. And that morning he had more time than usual thanks to Ramadan and the reduced Yemeni workweek. After the rooster, he’d headed downstairs for a quick workout. The FBI had established a legal attaché office in Sanaa in 2002, and agents had been adding to the villa’s home gym ever since. Everyone who passed through tried to leave something, part of an unwritten code to make it just a little nicer for the next guy. One of the early agents brought a treadmill; then came a bench and some free weights. Schwein contributed a heavy bag. Thirty minutes on the treadmill and 15 with the bag and he was ready for the day.
Over oatmeal, he worked out his schedule. He didn’t have any meetings, which meant that he could catch up on some paperwork and finally get to the inventory he’d been avoiding. Not the most glamorous part of the job, but it had to be done. Thinking about the dusty warehouse where he’d be doing inventory, Schwein decided against his usual suit and tie. His partner was out of the country and he wouldn’t be interacting with any Yemenis; he could get away with jeans and hiking boots.
A few minutes later, showered and dressed, Schwein walked out the front door and climbed into his SUV for the drive to work. It was just after 7:40 a.m.
One of the first things Nicholas Collura did every morning when he arrived at work was walk the perimeter of the 13-acre embassy. Laid out like a lopsided pentagon with five unequal sides, the embassy had a pair of tennis courts and a small pool. Collura liked to see it all for himself, and get a sense of the day. Each day was different, and he didn’t like surprises.
The embassy had been built back in the 1980s, in the wake of the 1983 suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the setback rules that followed. At the time it had been on the eastern edge of Sanaa, on a plain where early 20th-century travelers had once rested their camels before entering the city. But over the years as Sanaa kept growing, edging ever outward like a mutating amoeba of cinderblock and stone, the city had slowly overtaken the embassy grounds. Now, the fortlike complex was deep in the heart of its own neighborhood, surrounded by shops and homes.
As he circled the embassy, Collura could see the top of Nuqum, the bronzed, bulky mountain that protected the city’s eastern edge, stretching out above him. Every evening during Ramadan, soldiers atop the mountain fired off a cannon, marking the end of the fasting day. But that was hours away and, at least for the moment, most of Sanaa was still asleep. They were missing a beautiful day. Clear and calm, the temperature was already pushing 70, just warm enough to break a sweat if he hurried.
Security looked good. Around the embassy it was set up in concentric circles. The outer ring consisted of soldiers from the Central Security Force, a paramilitary unit headed by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih’s nephew. Collura didn’t expect much from the soldiers. He didn’t know them, and they didn’t report to him. They were Yemen’s contribution to the embassy’s protection, barely more than a uniformed deterrent. Next came his guys, whom the State Department referred to as Foreign Service Nationals, local security guards like Mukhtar al-Faqih, who manned the checkpoints and controlled traffic flow — a rotating cast of dozens in maroon golf shirts and tan baseball caps. They were stationed outside the walls. Inside the embassy was a six-man team of Marine guards. They were highly trained, but kept in check by a restrictive set of rules. In the event of a crisis, the Marines would be of limited use. They were there to protect the heart of the embassy and the top-secret files, a last resort if the walls were breached.
Completing his loop, Collura walked back toward the chancery, the embassy’s main building, where he had his office. One of the diplomats he knew stopped him on his way in.
“I’m heading up to the British Embassy for a meeting,” he said. “Do you want to come?”
Collura paused for a moment. Wednesday was shaping up to be a slow day, and it would be good to coordinate with the Brits. The U.S. and the U.K. liked to stay on the same page in Yemen, and that meant several meetings a week.
“Sure,” he replied. “Let me grab my bag, and I’ll follow you up.”
Over the years, Collura had put together a personal "go bag," filled with water, a GPS, and some other essentials that he carried in a tan backpack. Along with his gun, the bag went everywhere with him. But as he hurried up to his third-floor office, he thought about the British restriction against carrying weapons on embassy grounds. Grabbing his bag, he took out the Sig 9mm pistol he wore. No sense in creating a hassle at the gate.
Shortly after Collura completed his loop, Mukhtar walked out of the guard post and into the sun. He still had a little while before it was his turn to man the drop bar, which, along with a rolling speed bump armed with metal spikes called “dragon’s teeth,” controlled access to the embassy. The time inside had helped. He felt much better, and he wanted to give someone else a chance to rest. Working during the day, while the rest of the country slept, was tough enough during Ramadan without battling the sun.
Muhammad al-Shaybani, the guard at the drop bar, didn’t want to leave early, but Mukhtar insisted, saying he looked tired. Don’t worry, Mukhtar told his friend. He would take over.
Richard Schwein had taken one of the longer routes to work that morning. For nearly an hour and 15 minutes, he had weaved his SUV through Sanaa’s nearly deserted streets, doubling and tripling back as he killed time and stuck to the security protocol. Pulling into the embassy parking lot just before 9 a.m., he switched off the engine and walked inside. The rest of the FBI team, a language specialist and an office manager who was on her first assignment outside of the U.S., were already in the office.
“Morning,” Schwein called as he grabbed a cup of coffee.
Two floors above them, Ambassador Stephen Seche was rushing to finish a couple of final emails before his week in Egypt. Even without checking with the residence, he knew his security detail was ready and his wife was packed. He still had a little time.
Just outside the embassy wall, an American diplomat getting off the night shift pulled up to the security checkpoint to exit the embassy perimeter. Mukhtar and his partner, Taha Shumayla, snapped into action, just like they did every day. Mukhtar pulled on the rope to raise the drop bar, while Shumayla swung the dragon’s teeth out of his way. It was a slow morning, and Shumayla was enjoying their conversation.
Earlier that morning, at the qat chew with his brother and friends, Mukhtar had laughed off comments that he was the oldest bachelor in the family. “I’ll marry when I get to heaven,” he joked. But now with Shumayla, he was more intimate and honest about his desires, telling his friend that he was ready to settle down.
A few blocks away, two Suzuki jeeps with darkly tinted windows were driving toward the embassy. The first vehicle held two men; five more followed in the second. All were dressed in military uniforms.
The men knew their early Islamic history, and had picked their target accordingly. For them, Sept. 17 was a holy date. On the Islamic calendar, which held to the lunar cycle, the date was Ramadan 17, 1429. Centuries earlier, at the very beginning of Islam — 624 A.D., or the second year on the Muslim calendar — the Prophet Muhammad led a small band of believers into battle against a much larger pagan force. That morning on the plains south of Medina, the ragtag Muslim army stunned the pagans, a victory Muhammad and the Qur’an attributed to divine intervention.
The seven men in the jeeps saw themselves as the modern heirs to those early Muslims, outnumbered warriors on their way to crush the infidels. Days earlier, six of them had sat down to record their last wills. The seventh, Rashid al-Wasabi, declined, saying it violated his sense of piety. But all of them agreed about what needed to be done. The Americans had to go. Just as Muhammad had fought unbelievers in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, so too must they. And while the Americans were focusing on Sept. 11, the men in the jeeps had picked Sept. 17, the anniversary of the Battle of Badr and Muhammad’s greatest triumph.
Their leader was a short, pudgy man whose mustache stubbornly refused to connect to his goatee. A preacher by training, Lutf Bahr wore a white robe and a black turban for his appearance on camera. A tiny black microphone peeked through the buttons of his robe, inches above the olive-green suicide vest that he wore like an apron draped down his chest.
Peering down through his wire spectacles at the notes in his hand, which he carefully kept offscreen, he lectured into the camera. “All of us, everyone, welcomes martyrdom,” he said, seated on the floor between a surface-to-air missile, a Kalashnikov, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The other six were his students, men he’d recruited at the mosque where he taught in Hudaydah, a Red Sea port city 93 miles southwest of Sanaa. Yemen had never been their first choice. Most of them had dreamed of fighting and dying in Iraq, killing American soldiers in Baghdad or Fallujah, but when new travel restrictions made that impossible, they simply changed their focus and looked for targets closer to home. “What is the difference between killing Americans in Baghdad, and killing them in Sanaa?” several of the men asked in their videotaped statements.
As they neared the embassy, the men kept their speed down and tried to stay calm. This was their day. “We’re all a sacrifice for the messenger of God,” they repeated, punctuating their sentences with murmured cries of “Allahu Akbar.” The same words that had called the faithful to prayer hours earlier were now driving them to war.
One of the men, Mahmud Sa‘ad, a tall, good-looking engineer with a flat voice, had overseen the vehicle modification. He had the men cut holes in the roofs to allow for a gunner, tint the windows, and loaded each of the jeeps with explosives. Sa‘ad had spent time in a Yemeni prison, and the memory of those months made him single-minded in his preparation. In order to make the car bombs as powerful as possible, he had positioned a few manhole covers around the explosives to shape and direct the charges. His final touch was propane canisters, which he spread throughout the jeeps. These were his boosters, a little extra punch for explosion.
The plan was simple: The first vehicle would crash into the main gate, exploding a hole in the embassy’s perimeter and allowing the second jeep and the rest of the men to flood into the main compound and kill as many Americans as they could before they were gunned down. But to do that they had to pass through the concentric circles of security undetected.
At the first checkpoint, the one manned by the Central Security Force, soldiers glanced at the military license plates on the jeeps and waved them through.
The two jeeps pulled ahead to the next checkpoint and stopped. “We have a general here to see the ambassador,” one of the men shouted at Mukhtar and Shumayla.
Neither of them knew anything about a meeting. This wasn’t protocol. Seche hardly ever met people at the embassy; he usually went out. Still, the ambassador didn’t consult with them on his decisions.
Shumayla moved first, walking toward the jeeps to check IDs. About halfway there he paused. The windows in the jeeps were so darkly tinted that he couldn’t see inside. That wasn’t right. Mukhtar was already pulling on the rope to raise the drop bar when Shumayla saw it: a man in the lead jeep popping through a hole in the roof and clutching a Kalashnikov.
“Ya, Mukhtar,” Shumayla shouted. “Run.”
And then the shooting started. Three men jumped out of the trailing jeep, firing as they ran. Shumayla was gone, fleeing for the protection of several concrete barriers. But Mukhtar waited. He had to get the bar down. Letting the rope slide back down through his hands, he hit the duck-and-cover alarm — the embassy’s early warning system — as the bar crashed back down. It all lasted only a few seconds, but that was all it took. One bullet hit him below the left the shoulder; another took him in the stomach. He managed to turn and run about 10 yards toward some rocks before a third bullet hit him in the back and exploded out his chest.
One of the attackers ran for the gate. They had to get the jeeps inside to give them a clear shot at the gate. With the siren wailing against the rattling fire of the Kalashnikovs, the surprise was gone. But there was no turning back now. Each of the attackers was wearing a suicide vest. They were going to die today.
Slinging the Kalashnikov over his shoulder, the attacker grabbed the yard-high handle on the dragon’s teeth and pushed. Nothing. He slammed into it a second time, and again it refused to budge. He had to move the barrier. Finally, realizing his mistake, he pulled back on the dragon’s teeth, swinging it out of the way.
Too much time had passed. The men hadn’t practiced for this. Mukhtar’s delaying tactics had cost them. This wasn’t how the attack was supposed to go. The driver of the first jeep spotted a Yemeni military truck with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun several yards down the road. Shifting gears, he tweaked the plan on the fly and headed straight for the truck instead of the main gate.
Ambassador Seche was standing at his desk shuffling through some papers when he heard the explosion. A few seconds later, as a thick black cloud of smoke and debris blew past his window, training took over and he hit the floor. Then: nothing. There was no follow-up explosion or noise of any kind, just a weird void as if all the sound in the world had been sucked up by the bang. Facedown on his office carpet, his mind raced through his options. He had been through this in Baghdad, and he knew the drill. Security protocol dictated that he shelter in place and wait for instructions, but instructions from whom? He was the ambassador.
I need to know what’s going on, he thought, as he pulled himself up and ran through the reception area that separated his office from the deputy chief of mission’s office. Angie Bryan, his second in command, was under her desk.
“I’m going to run over to the RSO’s office,” Seche called from the doorway. As the regional security officer, Nicholas Collura would know what was happening; his office was just down the hallway on the third floor. On his way out of the suite, Seche shouted out some instructions to his secretary: “Get a line open to ops.” But even before he was out the door, she was already getting up and reaching for the phone to call Washington.
Two floors below them, Richard Schwein knew exactly what had happened. It was Iraq all over again. He took care of the women in the office first, hustling them into bulletproof vests and pushing them into a windowless, inner room. They were within the embassy’s hard line, inside the chancery. But he wanted them as far away from the windows as possible, and he didn’t know if the attackers had breached the wall.
Seche was worried about the same thing as he raced down the hall. If the attackers were inside the walls, they would have run of the compound. The embassy had several “safe havens” throughout the grounds, but none of them were designed to withstand a long siege. Anyone outside the chancery was going to be in trouble.
“What happened?” Seche huffed as he came through the door into the RSO’s office. “Where’s Nick?”
In a meeting room just inside the British Embassy, Collura’s phone kept going off. He glanced at it briefly, and then ignored it. He didn’t want to interrupt. But the calls kept coming. Finally, with an apologetic nod to the room, he moved toward the door and picked up. “Sir,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “We’re under attack.” Collura’s head snapped up. From his position, halfway up the hill, he could see a giant black cloud where the U.S. Embassy was located.
Sprinting out the door for his Land Cruiser, he shouted at the security guards to open the gate: “Go, go!”
The Marine detachment commander who had called him didn’t have much information, but as Collura raced down the hill, flying past the Sheraton on his right, he tried to assess the situation. He didn’t get very far; he didn’t know anything. He just hoped the attackers weren’t on the compound. He had helped review and update the security procedures, and he knew exactly how vulnerable those safe havens were. The embassy was a hard shell — soldiers and a thick wall — with a soft center. Anyone inside would have run of the place.
Braking sharply at the bottom of the hill, Collura rounded the corner to the right, running his Land Cruiser up on the sidewalk and throwing open his door. His mind took in the scene in a series of flashes. Several Yemeni soldiers were hunkered down behind the yellow-and-black concrete barriers the embassy used as an extra layer of protection. Inside the barriers, where the soldiers should have been, the attackers were moving up and down the street. Through the smoke, Collura could see other Yemenis running toward him and he could hear the bullets. It looked like the walls were breached. Ducking back behind his door, Collura reviewed his options. He had to get inside and he needed a gun.
Crouching on the sidewalk, he made a quick decision. There was a small steel door in the back of the embassy, a weak spot that he might be able to exploit now. If some of the attackers had broken through the door, maybe he could follow them in. Skirting the embassy’s cinderblock wall, Collura ran the quarter of a mile to the door. Locked.
On the other side of the embassy wall, Ambassador Seche had made it down the stairs to the back door of Post 1. Pounding on the door, he put his face up to the window so the Marine inside could see him. Crammed full of computers and monitors and manned 24/7, Post 1 was the embassy’s command-and-control center.
“What do you got?” Seche asked as he squeezed into the room.
The Marine on duty, a young sergeant, quickly ran through the past few minutes, briefing Seche on the initial assault and the car bomb that the ambassador had heard in his office. The Marine couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t think any of the attackers had come through the walls.
The blast had knocked out several of the embassy’s security cameras, but a few were still functioning and Seche could see several men walking up and down the street in front of the main gate. Every so often one of them would raise his machine gun and start to fire. They were probing, looking for weaknesses; reaching in through the turnstile to take aim at the vehicles parked in front of the ambassador’s residence, and shooting through the consular passback window. With Post 1 insulated from most of the external sound, it was like watching a silent movie. Seche could see the shooters spraying fire down the street, but he couldn’t hear the gunshots. The longer he watched, the weirder it seemed. The men on the black-and-white CCTV monitors didn’t look like they were in a hurry. Seche knew several people were down outside the walls. These men had just killed a lot of people, executing some of them, but on the screen they looked too casual to be murderers.
With some of the cameras down, there were blind spots on the street that the men weaved in and out of, and Seche was trying to get a number. “How many guys do you count?” he asked.
The Marine wasn’t sure. On the screen all the men looked alike and he couldn’t tell if he was counting some of the attackers twice as they passed between monitors.
As the minutes ticked by, Seche’s initial worry gave way to frustration. He was locked in Post 1 with a single Marine while a handful of terrorists had control of the street in front of the U.S. Embassy. Where were the Yemeni soldiers who were supposed to protect the embassy, he wondered. Where was the response?
The first thing Richard Schwein did after getting the other two FBI employees into a secure room was call Washington. FBI headquarters needed to know what was happening.
“This is Rick Schwein, legal attaché in Sanaa,” he said as soon as someone picked up. “The embassy is under attack.”
“Sir, can you say that again?” the overnight dispatcher asked.
Schwein repeated it, and waited.
Eventually the call went through and Schwein told the operations center what was happening. Then he called his deputy, Susan Ostrobinski, an experienced FBI agent who had been at ground zero when the towers came down on Sept. 11. Ostrobinski was across the Red Sea in Addis Ababa working with the Ethiopians, and Schwein needed her to make some calls.
In Addis Ababa, Ostrobinski was touring a biometrics facility with some Ethiopians and Americans who had flown in from the U.S. when Schwein’s call came through. Pulling the phone out of her pocket, she saw it was a Yemeni number and for a moment debated not picking up. What if her hosts thought it was rude? But then she answered and heard Schwein’s voice: “The embassy is under attack.”
He sounded too calm to be serious. “Are you fucking kidding?” Ostrobinski fired back in her sharp Boston accent. But even as she started to joke, she could hear the soft thumps of gunfire coming through the phone. Ostrobinski couldn’t believe it. She was standing outside staring at trees in Ethiopia, while her friends back in Yemen were under attack.
The Central Security Forces stationed a quick reaction force just outside the northwest corner of the embassy compound. With the steel door locked, that was Collura’s next target. He had no idea what was happening at the front of the embassy, but he thought he could rally the soldiers.
“Let’s go,” he yelled as he came through the door of the barracks. The 40 or so Yemenis inside just stared at him. “Where’s the commander?” he shouted. “Where’s the commander?”
No one moved. For a few seconds the two sides stared at each other, the American regional security officer and the room full of Yemeni soldiers. But he could see it in their eyes; they weren’t going anywhere.
Frustrated with their silence and obvious fear, and lacking the Arabic to convince them to move, Collura turned and ran back outside. As he moved away from the barracks, skirting the northern wall, he could still hear firing, but he couldn’t tell if it was coming from inside the embassy or not. He had almost completed a full loop around the embassy and he was still in the same position: unarmed and outside.
Collura spotted the embassy’s surveillance detection officer, a local Yemeni who spoke English, hiding behind some rocks. Grabbing the man, Collura ran him back to the barracks and told him to translate. The man repeated Collura’s instructions in Arabic, but the soldiers still refused to move. They had understood the first time; they just weren’t going to fight.
“Fine,” Collura spat out. “At least give me a gun.” Again, there was no response. The soldiers, the men who were supposed to be protecting the embassy, were useless. The only one who seemed ready to follow Collura was the surveillance detection officer. Together the two men sprinted for the northeast corner of the embassy compound, where the initial breach had taken place.
At the corner they paused to regroup. Collura knew there was an auxiliary gate right around the corner that the Marine in Post 1 controlled. If they could duck around the wall and slip in through the gate, he could assess the situation and direct a response. But that meant surviving the turn. The attackers still controlled the street in front of the embassy, and they were firing wildly in both directions. Whatever soldiers and guards hadn’t been able to flee during the first moments of the attack were now pinned down, trying to stay under cover.
Not far from where Mukhtar’s body lay sprawled in the dirt, Collura could see a Yemeni soldier crouched behind some rocks. As he watched, plotting out his next move and calling Post 1, the soldier took a round to the stomach and started to bleed out. Two of the man’s friends broke from cover, grabbing him by the arms and dragging him out of the line of fire and behind a small concrete building. Within moments they had him and his gun in the back of a truck, and were speeding away from the embassy. Collura couldn’t worry about the man right now, but he had wanted that gun. It wasn’t much, but it would have made him feel better. Now he’d have to go around the corner without it.
“Can you see us?” Collura shouted into the phone.
“Not yet,” the Marine guard replied from Post 1. The cameras on that corner were down, and inside the embassy’s command-and-control center, Seche and the Marine could see only the area right in front of the gate.
“OK, don’t pop the gate until you see us,” Collura said. “They’re wearing uniforms.” He didn’t want any of the attackers to sneak in ahead of them. “We’re going to make a break for it.” And then the two men started to run.
In the second jeep, two of the attackers were scrambling to adjust. Once Mukhtar had delayed them at the checkpoint and then sounded the alarm, everything had fallen apart. The first jeep had panicked, flying down the road and crashing into the machine gun truck instead of the main gate. Once the element of surprise was gone, so too was their plan.
The men in the second jeep had stayed well back of the first as it sped down the road in front of the embassy. They were the second part of the one-two punch, and they didn’t want to get caught in the initial blast. By the time they reached what was left of the gun truck, it was clear what had happened: The explosion had taken place too far from the embassy to create an opening. The walls were still intact and the gates were still standing. They would have to punch through the wall on their own.
What the men couldn’t see from the front seat of their jeep was that the blast had knocked one of the gates off its hinges. The gate was upright, but would fall if pushed.
Unmolested and with the other three attackers in control of the street, the pair took their time looking for the perfect spot. Edging past the burning shell of the gun truck, they skirted a little too close, and their tires caught on fire. They also had to watch out for blast debris and body parts. The first blast and the ensuing gunfire had killed several Yemenis who had been waiting in line outside to talk to a consular official, and now the street looked like some grotesque slip-and-slide littered with corpses and caked with a gooey mixture of oil and blood.
The men pushed through the smoke that still clogged the road and found what they were looking for: a pedestrian door near the front gate. Backing the jeep up, they looked out the front window and waited for their three friends to take cover.
Coming around the corner, Collura and the surveillance officer could see the second jeep bogged down in a patch of soft earth several yards in front of them. Its tires were on fire. Strange. Then everything flashed orange and white.
The second car bomb blew Collura back nearly 10 feet. He had been running with his cell phone in his hand and somehow he still had a hold of it, but he could barely hear. He had to move. He knew that. He couldn’t just lie there. Already he could sense the bullets slamming into the extended wall above his head. Shaking his head and trying to focus, he crawled to his knees and scrambled back to safety.
As soon as some of his hearing returned, he got back on the line to Post 1: “I don’t know if we’re going to make it in.”
Seche was worried as well. He hadn’t seen the blast, but he thought the attackers might be firing RPGs from across the street. And there was still no Yemeni response. Where were they?
In front of the embassy, the last three attackers popped up to survey the damage. Nothing. The jeep was on fire, but there was no hole in the wall and the gate was still standing. Muhammad Sa‘ad’s propane boosters had failed. A few of them ignited, but most simply went flying, knocked over the wall and down the street by the force of the explosion. The bomb had been a misfire.
The three still had control of the front of the embassy, but that was it. There was no way in that they could see. After two car bombs and four dead friends, the embassy walls were still standing and they were stuck outside, far from the Americans hiding inside. Yards away, near the crumpled gun truck, the busted gate still stood upright on its busted hinges.
Yemen’s first responders turned out to be a fire crew. From where he had taken cover around the corner of the embassy, Collura watched in disbelief as the squat, red truck drove down the street and through the smoke, apparently unaware that the attack was still underway.
For a few moments, the attackers appeared equally oblivious. They were still roaming the embassy wall, looking for weak spots as they rattled off rounds, some of which punched through the busted gate, and it took them a while to notice the fire truck that was spraying down the burning vehicles behind them. But once they did, the men had a new target. The fire crew tried to resist, briefly turning their hose on the attackers before the bullets forced it to retreat.
Collura relayed the whole strange scene back to Seche and the Marine guard in Post 1, who had been able to catch glimpses of it on their monitors. None of the three could make much sense of what they were seeing. They needed soldiers, not firemen. Collura quickly signed off to make some more calls. He needed to let U.S. diplomats outside of Sanaa know what was happening so they could take cover in case this was a coordinated attack. As he was dialing and talking, another explosion went off in front of the embassy. One of the attackers had attempted to do what two car bombs had been unable to accomplish. Nestling up against the wall, he detonated his vest. For the third time that morning, the blast failed to penetrate the embassy wall, as did a fourth attempt a few minutes later. The attackers were running out of options and men, and they still hadn’t realized that one of the gates was off its hinges.
The last of the seven stood alone on the street, surrounded by smoke and framed by the yellow-and-black concrete barriers that ran parallel to the embassy wall. He had just watched six of his friends die, and nothing had changed. The attack had been a failure.
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the only American they had been able to kill was a young Yemeni-American woman from Buffalo named Susan al-Banna, who was standing in the consular line with her new husband. The 11 other victims were all Yemenis, guards like Mukhtar, soldiers, and several civilians who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He had one move left. Acting like he was wounded, and perhaps he really was — it would soon be impossible to tell — the man waved a police officer over. As the officer approached, the attacker cradled a grenade and waited.
Collura wanted to try again. It had been 31 minutes since the second car bomb blew him backward, and he was still looking for a way inside. The timing had to be precise. From Post 1, the Marine needed to open the gate just wide enough for Collura and the Yemeni surveillance officer to slip through, and then close it immediately before any of the attackers could follow them into the compound.
The coordination had been tricky, but everyone was finally on the same page. Now all they needed was an opening.
Collura saw it first; the policeman sprinting back down the street. Strangely, for a man in the middle of a firefight, he wasn’t carrying a gun. But Collura was already moving.
Several yards down the road he glimpsed a jagged torso sitting in a stringy soup of blood and tendons. Then he was inside.
Zigzagging through the compound, Collura tried to assess the situation. It was a mess. There was smoke everywhere, swirling between the buildings and making it difficult to see. He was focused on scanning for attackers who might have made it inside, but even as he ran, his mind registered the sound of glass crunching under his boots and the hiss of propane tanks that he could see scattered about.
His first stop was Post 1 to check in with the ambassador, and then he grabbed Richard Schwein. The Marines had all taken up positions in the chancery, the embassy’s hard line, but Collura needed someone to help him clear the compound and get people out of the safe havens. Schwein’s FBI training made him a perfect partner.
As the two grabbed guns and ammunition from the embassy’s storeroom, Collura quickly briefed him on what he had seen outside. “They’re wearing military uniforms,” he said. “Anyone on the compound is fair game.”
Outside they could still hear the pops and bangs of gunshots and explosions. Schwein grabbed both an M4 machine gun and a pistol, stuffing extra ammunition in his jeans as he ran out of the room. After all those minutes of frustration spent waiting and worrying, it felt good to be doing something. They were fighting back, finally. The first priority was the civilians stuck outside the chancery. Collura and Schwein had to get them to safety, back behind the Marines, and then clear the compound.
Working in tandem, the two cleared building after building. Collura pulled a few people out from under some cars where they had taken cover, racing them back to the chancery with their heads down, trying as best they could to avoid direct line of sight with the front wall. He didn’t want any snipers scoring a lucky hit.
On one of his forays out, Schwein kicked something hard, almost tripping on it. He had been moving fast with his gun and head up, looking for threats. Glancing down, he saw a human head. His mind flashed back to Iraq. The neck is one of the body’s weak spots, briefers had explained at the time, and the force of the explosion often blows a suicide bomber’s head clean off. I really shouldn’t know that, Schwein thought.
The longer Collura and Schwein went without meeting any resistance, the more confident they grew that the walls had held and none of the attackers had gotten inside. After nearly 45 minutes, everyone was present and accounted for, and Collura gave the all-clear for the compound.
As Collura was briefing the ambassador on the attack — the men had controlled the front of the embassy for 42 minutes — they got word that the Yemeni interior minister was outside. Yemeni troops had finally arrived. Still bouncing with adrenaline, Seche wanted to walk out and meet him. Collura and the Marines pushed back, warning the ambassador that it wasn’t safe yet. But Seche had been cooped up long enough; he needed to do something, even if it was just a meeting. Seeing how determined the ambassador was, Collura gave up trying to argue with him and grabbed the nearest Marine. “Give me your vest.”
Seche felt foolish in a helmet and vest, but he had won the point and he wasn’t about to debate security procedures so soon after an attack. The embassy compound in front of the chancery was still littered with twisted pieces of metal and hissing propane tanks that had blown over the wall, and as they walked through the door, Collura grabbed the back of Seche’s vest, pulling him back. “Sir, watch your step,” he said, pointing to a bloody head lying just outside the door.
Seche hadn’t even seen the gory fragment. “Holy shit,” the ambassador muttered. It was the first time Collura had ever heard him swear.
The street in front of the embassy was a mess of smoldering cars and murdered bodies, an attack site that had yet to become a crime scene. Even the smell was unnatural. Seche had walked through the aftermath of bombings in Iraq, but never so soon after an attack. This was raw and untouched, gruesome in its finality. He couldn’t hold a meeting out here.
Fahd al-Faqih woke up just after noon. It was good to be home, and he liked playing the rich uncle to all his nieces and nephews, who were swarming around him looking for Ramadan treats. He was joking with them, passing out the wad of bills in his hand, when the doorbell rang.
Fahd motioned for his younger brother Muhammad to get the door. But Muhammad came back almost immediately. The man wanted to talk to Fahd.
“There was an explosion this morning at the embassy,” the man said. “I tried to call Mukhtar,” he paused. “His phone is switched off.”
Fahd didn’t respond. Standing at the door with the money still clumped in his hand, he went into autopilot: Slipping the bills into his back pocket, he walked outside and got in the car.
His cousin drove while Fahd fumbled with his phone. The only place Fahd could think of was the embassy. That’s where Mukhtar would be; his shift wasn’t even over. They were supposed to meet up in a few hours.
On the way, Fahd contacted some friends, but none of them knew anything. And as the rest of the family started to wake up, they were calling Fahd, asking him for information — information he didn’t have.
Then he did something he would later regret. He called his sister, and told her not to worry. “Mukhtar called me,” Fahd lied. “He’s OK.” The word went out in a flurry of calls to the rest of the family: Mukhtar is safe; he talked to Fahd.
Outside the embassy, Fahd’s mechanical calmness started to slip. He hadn’t expected nearly so much damage or so many people. In the three hours since the attack, dozens of Yemeni security personnel had surrounded the embassy, setting up a perimeter around the blast site.
None of the guards would let him through; he didn’t have the proper credentials, and they didn’t believe his story. Finally an officer came over to see what all the shouting was about. “Listen,” the officer said, trying to calm him down. “If your brother is inside, he’s safe. If something happened to him, he’s at the hospital.”
But it was the same story at the hospital. No one knew where Mukhtar was. They kept checking their lists, but Mukhtar’s name wasn’t on them. Someone suggested he check the morgue, but Fahd shook him off. He knew Mukhtar was alive. The hospital had more floors. Maybe they had taken Mukhtar there by mistake.
And then there was nowhere else to look. “I want to check if my brother is here,” Fahd told the guard outside the morgue.
The guard didn’t even look up. “No,” he snapped. “We have two women and one Ira—,” he said, his voice catching on the word “Iraqi” as he stared up at Fahd. The guard didn’t even finish his sentence. Looking back at the man’s face, Fahd knew. It was almost 3 p.m., 12 hours since Mukhtar had dropped him off and given him that last casual wave in the dark.
“Where are you from?” the guard asked, his voice much softer now. Fahd told him, and waited as he called someone from Fahd’s tribal region to come out and escort him inside. It was less than 100 yards from the guard post to the door, a short walk that wouldn’t get any longer.
Inside the room was quiet and cold, like walking into a refrigerator. Fahd wasn’t ready. He wanted more time; maybe they could open two or three so he could prepare himself. But that’s never the way it happens. Without hesitating, the attendant opened the first one, and Fahd saw his brother’s face.
“Is that him?” the man asked.
Fahd nodded. “That’s him.”
“What’s his name?”
Mukhtar al-Faqih was posthumously awarded the Department of State’s Thomas Jefferson Star for Foreign Service for sacrificing his life and giving “the last full measure of devotion to his colleagues and friends.” The U.S. Embassy hired his younger brother Muhammad to replace him as a security guard. It has denied the fourth and youngest brother, Walid, a visa to travel to the U.S.
Fahd al-Faqih now lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a clerk in a grocery store.
Nicholas Collura was awarded the State Department’s Medal of Valor for his actions on Sept. 17, 2008. He still works for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Stephen Seche retired from the State Department in 2013, and now works at Dentons, an international law firm, as a senior analyst.
Richard Schwein was awarded the FBI’s Medal of Valor for his actions on Sept. 17, 2008. His father received a similar award in the 1980s, making the pair the only father and son in FBI history to be honored with the bureau’s highest medal. Schwein is currently the special agent in charge of the Birmingham division of the FBI.
Shuaib al-Mosawa aided in the research for this article.