Marines kneel beside the battlefield cross to pay their final respects to Sgt. Bradley Atwell during a memorial ceremony Sept. 20, 2012. Atwell was killed in action while engaging insurgents during an attack on Camp Bastion. (Cpl. Mark Garcia / Marine Corps)
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The dozen insurgents responsible for the attack last year on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, that killed two Marines and caused tens of millions of dollars in destruction to aircraft and infrastructure made a long, complicated journey to spring their rampage.
The work began with them undertaking military training across the border in Pakistan. One day before the Sept. 14, 2012, attack, the insurgents moved across the border in groups of twos, and then regrouped in Kandahar. They hopped in a truck and traveled west to Helmand province, where they hid in a safe house in Washer district, which surrounds Bastion and adjacent Camp Leatherneck, the largest Marine base in Afghanistan.
Those are among the details outlined in a 32-page U.S. Central Command memo released this week by the military as Commandant Gen. Jim Amos announced that two of his general officers had been found at fault for allowing the attack to occur. Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, the commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell were killed in the attack. Eight other U.S. troops, eight British forces and one civilian were wounded.
Most of the initial media coverage focused on the commandant’s decision, announced Sept. 30, to ask for the retirement of Maj. Gens. Charles “Mark” Gurganus and Gregg Sturdevant. Gurganus was the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and Regional Command Southwest at the time, overseeing all coalition forces in Helmand and Nimroz provinces. Sturdevant led 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Fwd.), the Corps’ aviation element downrange.
The CENTCOM memo was signed Aug. 19 by Army Lt. Gen. William Garrett and Marine Maj. Gen. Thomas Murray, who oversaw the investigation. It includes a number of remarkable, relatively unknown details about the attack.
1. Previous would-be attackers blew themselves up
The one insurgent who survived the attack told investigators he was recruited for a “big, important mission” about four months before it occurred. It was necessary because several insurgents who had been trained for the mission previously were killed. Their improvised explosive device detonated prematurely during the “final staging for their attack,” according to the generals’ memo.
That group planned to attack in July 2012, and was depicted in a propaganda video released by the Taliban that showed insurgents preparing for the mission, the memo said.
2. No RPGs
It was widely reported after the attack that six AV-8B Harrier jets in VMA-211 were destroyed by insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades. That is unlikely, investigators found. Instead, attackers were likely equipped with “F-1” hand grenades, and either rolled or placed them underneath aircraft on the flightline, Garrett and Murray found.
That assessment was based “on the concrete cratering underneath the aircraft, fragmentation patterns on the aircraft coupled with computer modeling of the F-1 fragmentation pattern, and multiple F-1 grenades found on the enemy bodies closest to the aircraft,” their memo said.
3. Low-crawl to Bastion
The surviving insurgent told interrogators it took between 90 minutes and two hours for the attackers to reach the fence of Camp Bastion after they were dropped off. They initially traveled toward the base through a small wadi from the east, and low-crawled as they got closer.
“After cutting the fence with wire cutters, the attackers moved through the fence, and crossed the boundary road one at a time until forming a defensive perimeter on the west side of the road,” the generals’ CENTCOM memo said. “Tower 16, which is approximately 150 [meters] southwest of the breach point, was unmanned based upon the tower manning rotation set by the UK commander responsible for force protection on Camp Bastion.”
4. Torching of tents planned
The bodies of some of the attackers were found with spray-paint cans and lighters, the memo said. The detainee said during an interrogation that the insurgents planned to use them as mini-blow torches to light tents on fire in an effort to kill as many troops inside as possible.
5. Base security forces detailed
At the time of the attack, the base security force for the military complex that includes Bastion and Leatherneck consisted of 110 members of 2nd Battalion 10th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., 134 personnel from the British military, 288 troops from the Jordanian Armed Forces and 255 contractors with the company Triple Canopy.
Combined, the Marines and British forces could generate three or four squad-size foot patrols around the base per day. At the time of the attack, a single Marine squad was outside the wire on the Leatherneck side of the base, conducting surveillance on the point of origin of recent rocket attacks.
6. Guard tower problems
There were 24 concrete guard towers at Camp Bastion at the time of the attack, set anywhere from 50 to 250 meters away from the perimeter fence. Eleven of them were occupied at the time of the attack — common, Garrett and Murray found.
“Tower manning rotated in an attempt to avoid a pattern, and town manning selection was also based on the external terrain and interlocking fields of fire and observation,” the generals’ memo said.
Tower 17, the one nearest to the breach point that had guards, did not have a good vantage point of it. It would have been “difficult to observe an approaching attacker who was attempting to conceal his movement, even on a night with better illumination, and even if the guard was constantly scanning back and forth with a night-vision device,” the generals found.
7. Tongans on point
Marines were angered by allegations first published in The Washington Post in April that troops from the Pacific island of Tonga were known to fall asleep while on post in the towers at Bastion. However, Garrett and Murray found that there was no evidence to suggest that was the case the night of the attack.
“The Tongan guards had different guard procedures than the Marines, and they stayed in the towers for longer periods of time,” Garrett and Murray said in an executive summary of their investigation.
“Typically, two Tongans were on duty in the top of the tower, and two Tongans were off-duty in the bottom of the tower, which also served as their living and sleeping area,” they continued. “Marines typically ran on the gravel road near the Camp Bastion towers, so Marines without knowledge of the living and working arrangement in the guard towers may have misinterpreted and misreported what they observed the Tongans doing in and around the lower level of the towers.”
The investigation found that top commanders at Bastion and Leatherneck knew of the concerns about the Tongans but were not concerned because they were aware of their working arrangements in the towers.
8. Previous fence breaches
The attack was not the first time that individuals had breached the perimeter of Camp Bastion or Camp Leatherneck without permission. In one example, an intruder sneaked into Leatherneck in June 2012, fleeing after guards began to close in on him. The base had a problem with “scrappers,” individuals who would take or steal metal to sell for cash.
Garrett and Murray also found that there was surveillance video previously recorded of two other breaches at Bastion. In one case, two people breached the fence near the airfield but left through the same hole without incident.
“Many people throughout the RC(SW) chain of command, including MajGen Gurganus, expressed concern about the fence breaches, but accepted them as related to scrapping or theft activity,” the generals’ memo said.
9. Limited security for Harriers
Marine units on Camp Leatherneck were required to provide their own local security, posting barriers and guards as they saw fit. That wasn’t the case on Camp Bastion, however, the investigation found. Sturdevant left it up to individual squadron commanders to determine how they conducted local security, and they did not all do so the same way.
Two of the squadrons on the airfield, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161 and Marine Light Attack Squadron 469, maintained their own security, Garrett and Murray found. The Harrier unit, which sustained the majority of U.S. casualties, did not. It sustained the majority of the U.S. casualties, including the death of Raible, the squadron commander.
Garrett and Murray said that many Marines in VMA-211 believed they did not have enough manpower to post local security, but Sturdevant required it after the Bastion attack occurred.
10. Prince Harry rumors
The British media perpetuated one story line that the Taliban attacked Bastion in part because Prince Harry — known in the military as Capt. Harry Wales — was deployed there at the time as a helicopter co-pilot. Garrett and Murray found no evidence that that was the case.
“It is highly unlikely the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion to target Captain Wales, as planning for this attack began as far back as 2011, and primarily focused on destroying or damaging aircraft and [base] infrastructure,” the memo said.