Death and the American Ambassador: What Happened in Benghazi

The birthplace of the Libyan revolution has become the scene of an American diplomatic tragedy. Who might be behind it?

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States, Sept. 11, 2012.

Editor’s Note Added 11:15 a.m., May 8, 2014

Updated: 5:25 p.m., Sept. 12, 2012

In hindsight, many ill omens preceded Tuesday night’s carnage at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. In May, a bomb was thrown at the convoy of Ian Martin, the representative of the United Nations mission to Libya. The next month a rocket-propelled grenade hit the convoy of the British ambassador. Following an American drone strike that killed al-Qaeda’s third ranking official Abu Yahya al-Libi in June, a bomb exploded outside the American consulate itself.

And then there were protests. They have almost become tradition in Benghazi, the heart of the rebellion that eventually toppled Libya’s longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. There were protests against the interim government, against the West, against corruption, against a myriad other offenses. Tuesday’s demonstration were against an obscure but inflammatory American movie that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, It began around 9:30 p.m. with Libyans started marching on the consulate—where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and other American diplomatic personnel happened to be visiting from the capital Tripoli.

(READ: After Protests and Attacks, What’s Next for Relations with Libya and Egypt?)

When local security personnel shot in the air to disperse the crowds, elements in the crowd moved in and began to assault the consulate. When Kamal Suleiman heard gunfire from a mile from his house, he texted his friend the ambassador: “Are you OK?,” he wrote at 11:05 p.m..  When Stevens did not reply, Suleiman became alarmed. He had good reason to be.

“Bullets were flying everywhere,” recalls Ibrahim Shabani who arrived at the consulate around 11 P.M.  For more than an hour, the Libyan security forces tasked with guarding the building had been skirmishing with fighters who had the long beards favored by Islamists. As the battle progressed, the national army and units from the February 17th Brigade sent in reinforcements. But they could not push back the Islamists who fired a number of rocket-propelled grenades that torched the consulate.  “The extremists were on the [consulate] wall.  They were shooting at everything that moved,” Shabani said.

Inside the consulate, Stevens and his small group of aides and security detail shifted rooms in search of a safe haven. After the initial attack, according to a senior U.S. administration official in Washington,  they became separated in the burning building. One security official was able to make it outside and, with other personnel, went back in to look for Stevens and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. The atmosphere was desperate. “Assuming we don’t die tonight,”  Smith had messaged the director of his online gaming guild as the fire spread throughout consulate. But Smith would perish as would his boss and two other Americans. As the consulate slowly burned, the Ambassador inhaled the toxic smoke that  Libyan sources say eventually killed him. Pictures circulating on the internet showed his rumpled white shirt covered with a layer of soot. Not knowing who he was, Libyan rescuers reportedly rushed Stevens’ limp body to the Biladi Medical Center but it was too late to save him. They then brought his body to the airport where American authorities located him about dawn. The U.S. has not confirmed his death from asphyxiation.

It would not be till about 2:30 a.m. that Libyan security fully regained control of the diplomatic compound. Eyewitnesses said several security officials and a number of militants died in the clash.  But it is Stevens’ death that has the. U.S. and much of Libya grieving. “He was a good listener,” Suleiman says.  The two first met at the beginning of the Libyan revolution in 2011 and quickly warmed to each other as they reminisced about their time in California.  Stevens visited Suleiman’s house four times and was scheduled together to do so again on Thursday.  Suleiman believe his friend did not flinch as the fumes slowly suffocated him.   “He doesn’t show fear.”

In several Libyan cities, people marched to demonstrate their opposition to the attack.  Indeed, more than 1,000 showed up in Benghazi to protest the attack on the consulate; and organizers are planning several more in the coming days. Though Libyans hope that the incident will not tarnish the good relations they have worked so hard to cultivate with the United States, many nevertheless fear their country’s standing has diminished in the eyes of the Americans.  “Everyone here feels guilty about what happened,” says Ahmad Shlonak, a resident of Benghazi. “We want to be America’s friend, not its enemy.”

(SPECIAL: U.S. Ambassadors Who Have Died in the Line of Duty)

While citizens march in the streets, government officials cloistered themselves behind closed doors trying to respond to a security crisis that increasingly appears beyond their grasp.  “We need to throw these people out of Libya,” says a source close to Libya’s president.  “But we need time and help to do so.”

Many Libyans are blaming an extremist organization called Ansar al-Shari’a for the attack.  But the group has denied the charges. While reports are circulating that the assault was planned, experts in Washington hesitated to assign a motive or single out a group behind the incident. The senior administration official would only characterize the attack as “complex.”

Libyan analysts say that much of the problem lies in the Tripoli government’s reluctance to create a cohesive and organized security apparatus out of the militias that sprung up during the revolution.  “The interim government [that replaced former leader Gaddafi] did not have a solution to this problem and allowed it to fester,” notes Anas El Gomati, Director of Governance and Security at Al Sadeq Institute.

Steven’s death extends the history of attacks against American diplomatic officials and facilities in the Islamic world, one that dates back—at the very least–to the 1973 assassination of Washington’s ambassador to Sudan at the hands of Palestinian militants.  In 1976 Palestinians abducted and killed the incoming American ambassador to Lebanon; and in 1979 the American representative to Afghanistan was killed in a shoot-out between his captors and Afghan security personnel.  The most infamous assault on an American embassy occurred in 1979 when Iranian students stormed the building in Tehran and held diplomats there hostage for 444 days.  More recent attacks in the Arab world have been limited to material damages.

In 1998 Syrians protesting the American bombing of Iraq stormed the embassy in Damascus, forcing Marines and diplomatic security officials to rescue the ambassador’s wife stranded in the residence.  And in 2002, Bahrainis smashed window and torched cars in the embassy in Manama after the ambassador asked locals to observe a moment of silence for Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombings.

With reporting by Alex Altman/Washington

Editor’s Note: Official investigations of the Benghazi attacks, including a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have concluded that there were no protests that preceded or caused the assault on the embassy annex, as reported in this article. For more, read the SSCI report here [pdf].

MORE: Anti-Muhammad Film at Heart of Violence

43 comments
fortdearbornltd
fortdearbornltd

On the night that Stevens went to Benghazi, the live reports from Libya from American new  feeds on TV here clearly reported more than once that Mr. Stevens was warned not to go to Benghazi  because the situation  was too dangerous . That it was clear he was in risk on being harmed.   That live report should be broadcast  nationwide on 60 minutes. That would be a good venue. It was also reported that Stevens decided to go anyway, ignoring  the warnings. Why we dont know. What has happened to the truth in America??? Millions like myself saw the live feed. The network that was covering the story know its there. Is our country so  off track we cant report openly in America the truth. Isnt this why we fought the Commies for years. To prevent this kind of censorship, and political crime. If we were more honest  and open about Benghazi, its possible we could have prevented Putin from taking over Crimeria and all the all and gas reserves that belonged to Ukraine and lost when Russia annexed Crmeria. Where is the American pride and strength ...in reporting the truth, and stopping Russia.  Where was the CIA napping when all this happened. Its not about the political parties its all about the being Americans and standing up to fight for what is right, not was can be sold like a carnival show. @fortdearbornltd

Khuldoon Rasid
Khuldoon Rasid

Actually the question is this why all this is happening with Americans? because America creates problems in the world for others..............think seriously    

Richard
Richard

All of these attacks happen because we cannot learn to mind our own business.  When oh when can we just be a normal country worried about our borders and internal security without having to interfere in the affairs of other countries.  We cannot be the world’s policeman - we can't afford it and nobody wants us to be.

A good first step would be to stop all aid to Israel’s Zionist regime.  That is the thing that earns us most enmity of course.

America First.

JohnYuEsq
JohnYuEsq

RECKLESS LIAR Romney = Economic FAILURE! NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST! 

 

We cannot kill everyone into submission. We must win their HEARTS and MINDS. 

 

Truly, ONLY President OBAMA is well equipped for this MISSION. RE-ELECT our HONEST, DECENT, COMPASSIONATE POTUS, OBAMA. 

PreyingMantis
PreyingMantis

Lesson learnt from Libya: Even if you sought freedom for these people and think they owe you gratitude, never feel comfortable and let your guard down. The West and the Middle East, are like oil and water, irrespective of what you do for them.

Peiyu Cui
Peiyu Cui

So, big brother, what's your next plan?

IcarusRising
IcarusRising

Condolences to all the families of the dead.

The authorities need to take severe legal action against all enteties involved in the making of this infamous Hate Speech movie hiding under the guise of free speech. This movie has compromised our national security in explosive ways.

1Red_Bird
1Red_Bird

We helped liberate these people from a tyrant and this is what we get? We pour money into the MidEast for what, we expend our blood for them for what. There comes a time to say enough. There SHOULD have been American Marines there to ensure that any attack on that embassy be repelled with force. High crimes and misdemeaner charges against the Peter Principled President that left our embassy undermanned ANYWHERE in the MidEast.   

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

   Why is it that the silenced voice tolls so much louder than ones that are never still?  Two days ago few even knew Ambassador Stevens existed, and today his silenced voice rocks the very fabric of the cradle of humanity.  Chris Stephen's words scream out in death, as Abel's did from the soil.  Has all of the culture of the Middle East come to ... this insanity?  Is Death and Murder to commemorate MORE death and murder  by "Bearded Ones"  all the Religion of Peace can produce?  Why have not the righteous people of Islam taken these murderers to task and cast them down?  It is time and past time.  A Friend and guest of the people of Islam has been murdered IN THEIR OWN HOUSE!   Why are the murderers still running free?  Has justice abandoned the land of it's creation??  No?  Then find them, and let justice speak.  QUICKLY before other opportunists can move and a wound turns to septic violence.  Bring order to YOUR house Islam, before some foreigner tries again to do it FOR you.  And fails.  Once again.

freedomisgood
freedomisgood

The current administration put these animals in power!  In Egypt and Libya!

Bad judgement?  I don't think so!  

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

WE MUST LEARN TO LIVE WITH OTHERS OR QUIT? We Americans in particular and Westerners in general should used to live with others respecting their culture, religion, languages, dress codes, civility, way of life and democracy and freedom or if that is too much for our values and ethos; we must leave their lands and allow them to live the way they would like to live. King Bush-Cheney tried to impose our values and codes on others, we were hated everywhere in the world, invited 9/11 and then two wars which has cost more than trillion dollar and many hundred thousands human beings, mostly innocents have lost their lives and the WAR on Terrorism became a daily affair making us to fear for everything and everywhere we go. Forget about Romney and his team, Obama must continue his level best to stop this race of madness and killings games and try to change America and Americans.  

westway775
westway775

Enough is enough. If this is what the Arab Spring is all about, I pray that February snows will come and blot it out.  If units of the Libyan military cannot protect a small diplomatic mission, then its time to pull up stakes and leave the forest to the beasts which roam it. Let them tear away at each other -- something they're endlessly good at.  One has to ask: What was the Obama administration thinking, when it left this consulate so vulnerable to attack? Surely they knew the risks.

The Canadians had it right when they closed up shop in Iran, and we ought to follow suit, in Libya and elsewhere. The Islamic world loathes us; it does not want us anywhere in its yard. Well and good. Let them settle their own hash in their own way. We've spent enough money and spilled enough blood. Let them spend and spill for themselves.