Death And The American Ambassador
In hindsight, many ill omens preceded Tuesday night’s carnage at the US 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 ambas- sador. 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 top- pled Libya’s long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
There were protests against the interim government, against the West, against cor- ruption, against a myriad other offences. Tuesday’s demonstration was against an obscure but inflammatory American movie that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.
It began around 21h30, when Libyans started marching on the consulate – where US Ambassador Chris Stevens and other American diplomatic personnel happened to be visiting from the capital Tripoli.
When local security personnel shot in the air to disperse the crowds, elements in the crowd moved in and began to assault the con- sulate. When Kamal Suleiman heard gunfire from a mile from his house, he texted his friend the ambassador: “Are you OK?”, he wrote at 23h05. When Stevens did not reply, Suleiman became alarmed. He had good reason to be.
No Safe Haven
“Bullets were flying everywhere,” recalls Ibrahim Shabani who arrived at the consulate around 23h00. For more than an hour, the Libyan security forces tasked with guard- ing the building had been skirmishing with fighters who had the long beards favoured
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 ini- tial attack, according to a senior US admin- istration official in Washington, they became separated in the burning building. One secu- rity 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 Am- bassador inhaled the toxic smoke that Libyan sources say eventually killed him. Pictures circulating on the internet showed his rum- pled white shirt covered with a layer of soot. Not knowing who he was, Libyan rescuers reportedly rushed Stevens’ limp body to the Biladi Medical Centre but it was too late to save him. They then brought his body to the airport where American authorities located him about dawn. The US has not confirmed his death from asphyxiation.
It would not be till about 02h30 that Libyan security fully regained control of the diplo- matic compound. Eyewitnesses said several security officials and a number of militants died in the clash. But it is Stevens’ death that has the US 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 sched- uled to do so again on Thursday.
Suleiman believes 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 consu- late; and organisers are planning several more in the coming days. Though Libyans hope that the incident will not tarnish the good re- lations 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 hap- pened,” says Ahmad Shlonak, a resident of Benghazi. “We want to be America’s friend, not its enemy.” While citizens march in the streets, government officials cloistered them- selves 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 presi- dent.
“But we need time and help to do so.”
Many Libyans are blaming an extremist organisation called Ansar al-Shari’a for the
attack. 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 be- hind the incident. The senior administration official would only characterise the attack as “complex”.
Libyan analysts say that much of the problem lies in the Tripoli government’s reluctance to create a cohesive and organised security apparatus out of the militias that sprung up during the revolution.
“The interim government [that replaced former leader Gaddafi] did not have a solu- tion to this problem and allowed it to fester,” notes Anas el Gomati, Director of Govern- ance and Security at Al Sadeq Institute.
Steven’s death extends the history of at- tacks 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 Leba- non; and in 1979 the American representa- tive to Afghanistan was killed in a shoot-out between his captors and Afghan security personnel.
The most infamous assault on an Ameri- can 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 ambas- sador asked locals to observe a moment
of silence for Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombings. – time.com
– With reporting by Alex Altman in Wash- ington D.C.