The U.S. ambassador to Libya died in a smoke-filled tomb while his colleagues escaped the American diplomatic post in Benghazi when it was attacked by Islamist gunmen, according to a reconstruction of his final hours.
On that, and little else, there is widespread agreement.
At home, politicians are dueling over who is to blame for the deaths of Chris Stevens and three other Americans. With the election 34 days away, Republicans are faulting President Barack Obama’s administration over its security preparations and its reaction to the attack, seeking to reverse their presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s deficit in national polls.
“Their response was slow, it was confused, it was inconsistent,” Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said Sept. 30 on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is part of a bigger picture of the fact that the Obama foreign policy is unraveling literally before our eyes on our TV screens.”
Two Republican lawmakers said yesterday that U.S. officials in Libya sought more security in Benghazi before the attacks and were spurned by counterparts in Washington. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California and Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying their information came from “multiple U.S. federal government officials” they didn’t name.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to discuss the issues raised by the letter, which she said will be reviewed by an accountability review board led by former senior U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering, as well as by Congress. The U.S., she said yesterday, is still working with the information at hand, which another State Department official with knowledge of the incident called incomplete at best.
Much about the Sept. 11 attack remains unknown, including why some Libyan agents of the Central Intelligence Agency were unable to reach their American contacts that night, said two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. While intelligence officials probe that question, a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is preparing to investigate the jumble of events.
The Obama administration initially called the assault a spontaneous protest that turned violent, then later revised its account to characterize the incident as a terrorist act organized by extremists with possible ties to al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate.
In interviews, Libyan police and local residents, some of whom witnessed the attack, described a series of ominous signals in the days and months beforehand, chaos during the assault, and a veteran envoy who perished while others were rescued.
Libyan police who arrived to evacuate Americans soon after the attack began on the night of Sept. 11 weren’t told that Ambassador Stevens was missing or injured, Fawzi Younis Qaddafi, head of the Special Security Committee in Benghazi, Libya’s national gendarmerie, said in an interview. With looters entering the compound, Qaddafi decided to help the U.S. staff leave and abandon the compound, he said.
“We didn’t know the ambassador was there,” he said. “It was the Americans’ fault.”
Home video recorded by an unknown person and posted on the Internet shows young Libyan men pulling Stevens, his white shirt over his shoulders, through the open window of his bedroom into the yard.
Stevens was brought to the city’s largest hospital, Benghazi Medical Center, in a private car driven by unknown Libyan civilians some time after 1 a.m. on Sept. 12, hospital director Dr. Fathi al Jehani said in an interview. He was dead.
Before the attack, Benghazi was well known as a dangerous place for U.S. and Western citizens, and the two U.S. officials said intelligence had warned that an Islamic extremist group posed a threat to Americans in the city.
Between February and June, a series of attacks took place, beginning with the desecration of 200 British and Commonwealth World War II-era graves in the city. They escalated to bomb attacks against the United Nations head of mission in April, the International Committee of the Red Cross office in May and the U.S. consulate in June.
Later that month, a rocket hit an armored jeep in a convoy carrying Dominic Asquith, the British ambassador to Libya, and injured two of his bodyguards. While the British and the Red Cross subsequently left the city, the U.S. stayed on.
Even after those attacks, the U.S. consulate remained less fortified than the abandoned British facility. While the U.S. building had barbed wire at the front, parts of its side and rear walls were unprotected.
Ahmed Busheri, a brother of the consulate’s landlord, showed a reporter a stretch of gray cinder-block wall about eight feet (2.4 meters) high. The attackers “climbed in,” he said. “It is not difficult.”
The U.K. consulate, visible across the fields from the U.S. building, has thicker walls approximately 15 feet (4.6 meters) high and is buttressed by cages containing sandbags.
While the Libyan police didn’t know Stevens was in the city, others in Benghazi did.
Jehani was due to meet the ambassador and two Boston doctors on Sept. 12 to discuss collaboration between his facility and Harvard Medical School. Hana El Gallal, a local activist and former education minister in Libya’s transitional government, said she and members of other human rights groups were to meet Stevens at 3:30 p.m. the same day.
The visit coincided with rising tension across the Muslim world. On the morning of Sept. 11, crowds in Egypt angered by the release in the U.S. of an amateur video clip ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and burned the American flag.
It’s not known whether news of the events in Egypt was conveyed to the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, or if security was bolstered in light of the unrest in other countries.
Even so, the day was quiet in Benghazi. Groups of British and Turkish diplomats spent time at the U.S. diplomatic compound before flying to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in the evening.
The walled compound includes a villa and four other buildings in Fawayhat, a suburb four miles (6.4 kilometers) south of the city center in a district of open fields and compounds owned by wealthy Benghazians.
Gunfire erupted shortly before 10 p.m., according to a Libyan-American witness who was among the patrons at the popular Venezia restaurant across the street from the compound’s rear entrance. He asked to not be named for fear of reprisals.
The witness said he watched a group of eight to 12 men armed with automatic weapons and a rocket launcher gather at the rear gate, displaying the black flag of Ansar al-Sharia, a Benghazi Islamist militia.
‘Beards and Kalashnikovs’
“Some people with beards and Kalashnikovs were standing there,” he said in an interview. “The guys from Sharia were there; they had their flags.”
Shortly afterward, the witness said, shooting began at the compound’s main entrance, which he couldn’t see, and then a Libyan guard employed by the Americans opened the rear gate. After some shouting, several attackers opened fire with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade.
“Another guy used an RPG,” he said. “Ansar Al Sharia guys, they fired the RPG, no doubt; I saw it.”
At about this time, Qaddafi, who isn’t related to the late Libyan dictator, said an anxious U.S. official phoned and asked him to help evacuate staff members to a second U.S. building some 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) south of the main compound.
“I was in touch with them once it was happening,” he said. “It was a very big attack. They were asking for help to protect them” once they arrived at the second compound.
There are signs of a gun battle at the main compound, including 24 bullet holes around the front and rear gates. Yet on the inside, there are few signs of battle damage. There are few impact marks on the villa and four other buildings, and no cartridge casings.
The villa at the center of the compound had steel doors at the entrances and welded steel grates on all the windows, though the window of Steven’s bedroom was unprotected.
Stevens, who was 52, locked himself in a suite of rooms inside the villa behind a steel door that doesn’t appear to have been breached by the assailants. The main doors were blown in, though, suggesting attackers entered the villa just outside the rooms. An impact hole characteristic of a rocket-propelled grenade is visible just above the main doors. The doors have been forced open, possibly by the impact of the grenade.
Whether the attackers tried to breach the secure rooms -- a bedroom, bathroom and anteroom -- where Stevens hid is unclear. Looters who entered the villa later got into his room through the unprotected window, not the door.
Also killed in the attack were Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information officer, as well as Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, two former Navy SEALs who were working as security personnel, according to a State Department news release. There are conflicting reports about where they died.
Qaddafi of the national gendarmerie said he was awakened at about 4 a.m. and told that a second attack was under way against the U.S. annex where the staff had moved earlier in the night.
That building was neither fortified nor secret, with U.S. diplomatic staff shuttling each day between the building and the main compound in white pickup trucks, Adel Ibrahim, one of the property’s owners, said in an interview.
Ibrahim said the survivors of the attack on the main compound arrived at the villa in a single armored car that had been hit by bullets during the journey.
There are no bullet marks on the low wall around the compound, which is much smaller than the consulate, but the impact marks from two projectiles are visible on the roof, possibly from mortars. One struck the lip of the roof of the housing block. Blood stained a concrete wall below, and a sand- colored Kevlar helmet lay in a bush nearby.
Ibrahim said an American died there.
How, and by whose hand, remains unclear. The Libyan probe is being run by Salem Abdul Ali, an investigating judge who said in a Sept. 30 interview that he could not discuss details.
Speaking September 16 on ABC News “This Week,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice called the assault a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Islam video clip. The White House since has said the attack was an act of terrorism, and on Sept. 29, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement saying that some of the attackers “were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to, al-Qaeda.”
Mohamed Magariaf, head of the Libyan Congress, said in a Sept. 15 interview that members of Ansar al-Sharia participated in the attack. The two U.S. officials said intelligence indicates that the group was responsible for the attack.
The militia, which says it disbanded after anti-Islamist protests in Benghazi last month, denied involvement in the consulate attack, spokesman Youseff el-Gehani said.
Ansar al-Sharia has links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an extremist group in northern Africa that they said is largely self-sufficient and not directed by the remaining al- Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. The U.S. officials said yesterday the CIA and other agencies have been collecting intelligence on the group and its leaders for more than a year and have stepped up efforts to locate its bases since the Sept. 11 attack.
In Benghazi, a Sept. 30 visit found the consulate building a gutted wreck. The room where Stevens hid was a jumble, with an overturned mattress, smashed furniture and a used disposable smoke mask. The ambassador’s soot-covered clothing still hung in the closet.
To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Stephen in Benghazi, Libya at firstname.lastname@example.org