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.

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

MORE: Anti-Muhammad Film at Heart of Violence

39 comments
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.

najodo
najodo

so are you also in favor of stopping all aid to islamic countries? they get plenty from our taxpayers(i.e.those who work for their living). just wondering if you think equally or just like to pick one country out of your hat. you can only have that view here. 

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

If we go "isolated" then you'll finally lose that 40 pounds you're always talking about, because you'll be walking everywhere.  Gas will be whatever some OTHER person sets it's price to be!  Probably a good thing, especially for you!

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.

oldprofessor
oldprofessor

It is not the Libyan people we are having trouble with.  Did you really believe the war on terrorism would be over when we killed bin Laden?

We have made it tough for them to attack us in the US.  So they hit us at weak spots around the world. 

If we give those weak spots to them, we are more restricted ...and they will continue to nibble at the edges.

America was not developed by weaklings.  Your brand of propaganda will not sell in America.

Peiyu Cui
Peiyu Cui

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

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Destroy the Internet, then after lunch, we'll make sure to modify everyone's attitude to make them SAFE for Obamacracy.  You know, take away guns, free speech, and  the freedom of anyone who protests.  By then it will be dinner time.   Come to the Obama Open House on Pennsylvania Avenue -- and see the new President for Life's collection of toys-not-being-used-anymore by previous owners!!!!!   Make sure to check out the bathroom, each sheet of toilet paper has a few threads from the Constitution.

najodo
najodo

way to go peiyu! couldn't have said it better.

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.

najodo
najodo

so are you saying we should acquiesce to overseas islamic beliefs? really? i think they should do some changing if they want, but we shouldn't change anything in the usa because they like to rampage amp; kill every time they think something offended them over there. that little movie was made here because we have that freedom, just like they do horribly repulsive things here to anything christian amp; all the artist gets here is a prize or great recognition!!

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Good idea!  They should start by repealing "Free Speech" and follow it up by withdrawing the rest of the bill of rights.   Make DAMNED sure to make guns illegal otherwise some people will make a scene on the way to their destiny with the gas chambers.   Good choice of roads you have there!

IcarusRising
IcarusRising

Free speech will only survive if people know how to protect it by not subscribing to conspiracy theories and demagoguery.

As for Guns, a truly civilized and democratic society does not need them.

Gettheheckoverit
Gettheheckoverit

 dont be a complete ass....I imagine you'd tear up our free speech clause to appease a small number of foreign maniacs?

Your more dangerous than they are.

Fool.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Now now now, Mr. Icarus the Risen is simply parroting what he's been taught!!!   If he had to think for himself he would't support Obama.

IcarusRising
IcarusRising

 It seems that you are the only ass in this conversation, yes you the one who cant carry an intelligent debate without being crass !

I on the other hand, hold the free speech clause, near and dear. I was trying to differentiate between Free speech and Defemation and I have a feeling that you know the meaning and uses of the latter.

Chill ..

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.

najodo
najodo

i have been questioning the lack of denouncements by the "good amp; decent muslims" all over the world. i guess it must be that even in the usa they can't critique one another even if they thought it was wrong because they must be frightened of retaliations. 

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Perhaps they don't have the strength of their convictions?  USA had one HELL of a time with KKK -- who rather remind me of many of "the bearded ones" -- a power grab cloaked in "religious" guise.

Richard
Richard

We should get out of the middle east completely.  A good first step would be to cut aid - and diplomatic relations - with the racist apartheid Zionist regime.  

najodo
najodo

gosh, richie, it sounds as though you are the racist. why is that? don't you think there is a lot more to it than just your opinion of the "racist apartheid Zionist regime? you must educate yourself by reading history as far back as you can go. try that for now.

Khuldoon Rasid
Khuldoon Rasid

What is aid aid aid ? ? ? u r eating daily only due to bank accounts of Arabs..

najodo
najodo

maybe you are, khuldoon, but that's not how i'm eating, but thanks for trying to inform me of your uneducated opinion.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Obama's trying!!  Minor problem.  The middle east controls oil prices the way the FED controls the money supply.  By raising and lowering their benchmark Crude prices.  If we pull out, then we have exactly no say.  And if we have no say, then we have no power.  Want to have someone do to YOU what WE did to the Indians here?  It can happen, and very very quickly.

najodo
najodo

and do you know what some tribes and/or nations did to each other here? human nature has always since beginning of time expanded territories, didn't you know that? 

freedomisgood
freedomisgood

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

Bad judgement?  I don't think so!  

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Don't bother to read the facts - just let your political bias lead you.

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.

oldprofessor
oldprofessor

Cut and run when things get tough?   Do you claim to be an American? 

Garzhad
Garzhad

 It's called abandoning a hopelessly lost cause, which the middle east is. They do not want to be saved, and relish the spilling of Western blood. They should be left alone in their squalor to spill their own; we've wasted enough of our own lives and money for them.

theblackjack
theblackjack

please... leaving those "beasts" by themselves would cost you Americans more than sticking it out. Oil, trade networks... talk about the fragile international order USA wants to keep. It's all a game of thrones - keep an enemy (or a friend) unchecked and you die sooner or later.