The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed when suspected Libyan religious extremists stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi late Tuesday night, according to Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagour. Margaret Coker has the latest on The News Hub.
The killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, in one of the most brazen attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in a generation, sparked a security crisis in the North African country, elevated tensions across the Middle East and raised concerns about how well the U.S. can protect its diplomats abroad.
The U.S. responded to the assault by dispatching two Navy destroyers, dozens of Marines, federal investigators and intelligence assets to Libya to protect Americans and hunt the suspected religious extremists who carried out the attack late Tuesday. U.S. officials described the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens as complex and possibly premeditated.
The assault, along with a protest at the American embassy in Cairo, created a crisis atmosphere in Washington just as the presidential campaign is hitting its stretch run and fueled a harsh exchange between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
Mr. Obama said the U.S. will work with the Libyan government to bring attackers to justice, but he and other officials didn’t rule out a unilateral U.S. strike. “Make no mistake, justice will be done,” the president said.
What’s the likely fallout from the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya as well as the storming of U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt? Eurasia Group Middle East and North Africa Analyst Hani Sabra discusses on The News Hub. Photo: Reuters.
The attack took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a day when security officials are typically on heightened alert. American officials, who debriefed survivors, described a horrifying scene in the consulate where, amid thick smoke and gunfire, Mr. Stevens became separated from his security officer.
As the flames grew and attacks increased, personnel were forced to abandon the building without the ambassador. American officials retrieved his body when it was brought to the airport the next day by Libyans.
An Obama administration official declined to comment on the ambassador’s security measures but said a review conducted ahead of the anniversary found “no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured.”
U.S. officials were still piecing together the day’s events, which followed protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo over an anti-Islamic video. In contrast to the Cairo protest, which appeared to be spontaneous, U.S. officials said the attack in Benghazi late Tuesday night might have been planned by militants who used the protests as cover.
American intelligence agencies were poring over information that could help indicate what groups may have taken part. Officials said intelligence agencies are looking specifically at the pro-al Qaeda group Ansar al Shariah but cautioned they didn’t have solid evidence.
Nearly 24 hours after the start of the shooting, officials struggled to piece together details about what transpired through hours of chaos and terror inside the darkened consulate and a nearby annex. They warned that their preliminary version of events could change as more information became available.
Nearby, Benghazi residents described a harrowing scene of destructive mob violence. A Libyan doctor said he and several neighbors attempted to get the gang of about 200 armed men to leave as they marched toward the U.S. compound. “We told them to leave our homes alone and one [of the militants] replied, ‘The Americans are infidels and we are going to finish them,’ the doctor said. “Many of us then fled because the shooting started.”
Ali Ben Saud, the Libyan owner of the villa leased to the U.S. for the consulate, said the men arrived in the neighborhood around 8 p.m. local time, carrying weapons including rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles.
The handful of local security forces were overwhelmed. “We couldn’t stop them. They were multiplying, minute by minute. There were hundreds of them,” said Saleheddine al-Arghoubi, a neighborhood resident. “They didn’t come to talk. They came to fight.” The first shots were fired at around 10 p.m. local time, or 4 p.m. Eastern time, according to a preliminary U.S. account.
The attackers gained access to the compound and began firing into the main building, setting it afire. A senior administration official said three people were inside the compound at the time: Mr. Stevens; Sean Smith, a foreign service information-management officer; and a U.S. regional security officer.
As the three tried to leave the burning building, they became separated from each other in heavy smoke. The regional security officer, whose name hadn’t been disclosed by late Wednesday, made it outside, and then he and other security personnel rushed back into the burning building to try to rescue Mr. Stevens and Mr. Smith. They found Mr. Smith, already dead.
They were unable to find the ambassador before being forced to flee the building because of the heavy flames and continuing small-arms fire.
Around 10:45 p.m. local time, U.S. security personnel assigned to a nearby annex tried to regain control of the main building but came under heavy fire and returned to the annex. At around midnight, the mission annex came under fire. Two U.S. diplomats were killed during that attack and two others were wounded.
At around 2:30 a.m. local time, Libyan security forces regained control of the situation, according to the preliminary U.S. account. Mr. Obama was told Tuesday night that Mr. Stevens was unaccounted for.
According to Mr. Ben Saud, the landowner, Libyan security guards jumped into the compound and pulled Mr. Stevens from the burning building at around 1 a.m. local time. Libyans then drove him to Benghazi Central Hospital, where the staff there tried unsuccessfully to revive him. One Libyan doctor said the diplomat died of asphyxiation and that he tried for 90 minutes to revive him, according to the Associated Press
Obama administration officials said they didn’t know what condition the ambassador was in when he left the compound. “His body was later returned to U.S. personnel at the Benghazi airport,” an administration official said. A chartered aircraft evacuated U.S. personnel back to Tripoli, including the remains of those killed.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack should “shock the conscience” of people of all faiths, but wouldn’t alter U.S. policy in Libya. The “mission in Libya is noble and necessary…and will continue,” she said from Washington. The U.S. also announced increased security measures for all U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Libyan officials, many of whom led the rebel government based in Benghazi and worked with Mr. Stevens during that time, condemned the killings. The head of the new congress, Mohammed Magarief, apologized to the American public for the tragedy. By late Wednesday, no one had been arrested. Officials in Tripoli were scrambling to implement a response to what they admitted was a monumental security breach.
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The U.S. responded by sending two destroyers, the U.S.S. Laboon and the U.S.S. McFaul, to the Libyan coast to aid in any evacuations or humanitarian missions, said a U.S. official.
In addition, a U.S. Marine team was sent to supplement security at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, arriving there Wednesday. The unit is known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST team, and typically numbers 50 Marines.
Mr. Stevens is the first ambassador killed by hostile forces since 1979, when the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan was murdered in Kabul. Officials said intelligence agencies were now trying to determine if any threads of information may have been missed.
American intelligence agencies are poring over threat information that could help indicate what groups may have taken part in the attack.
Members of the Ansar al Shariah militant group gave an interview to the local television station from the hospital early Wednesday morning, praising the men who attacked the consulate, calling them “the top layer of Libyan society.” However, the members told Benghazi TV that their organization, a group of religious fighters who battled to help oust Moammar Gadhafi from power, didn’t plan the attack against the Americans.
Mr. Stevens, 52, who is usually based in the capital Tripoli, apparently was visiting Benghazi ahead of the planned opening of a U.S. cultural center there, said a Libyan official.
The attack on the U.S. consulate was the second this year. In June, suspected Islamic militants detonated an improvised explosive device at the same compound. A Libyan guard was injured, but no Americans were harmed. In the spring, the International Committee for the Red Cross offices in Benghazi were also targeted.
Washington has long been leery of the radical Islamic fringe in Libya. The largest number of foreign fighters in Iraq waging battles against U.S. soldiers were from two towns in eastern Libya, and U.S. drones have monitored those locations since the Libyan uprising last year.
—Siobhan Gorman, Devlin Barrett and Carol E. Lee contributed to this article.