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].

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