On the eve of his death, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was ebullient as he returned for the first time in his new role to Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city that embraced him as a savior during last year’s civil war. He moved around the coastal town in an armored vehicle and held a marathon of meetings, his handful of bodyguards trailing discreetly behind.
But as Stevens met with Benghazi civic leaders, U.S. officials appear to have underestimated the threat facing both the ambassador and other Americans. They had not reinforced the American mission to meet strict safety standards for government buildings overseas. Nor had they posted a U.S. Marine detachment, as at other missions in high-threat regions.
A U.S. military team assigned to establish security at the new embassy in Tripoli, in a previously undisclosed detail, was never instructed to fortify the temporary hub in the east. Instead, a small local guard force was hired by a British private security firm as part of a contract worth less than half of what it costs to deploy a single U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for a year.
The two U.S. compounds where Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a sustained, brutal attack the night of Sept. 11 proved to be strikingly vulnerable targets in an era of barricaded embassies and multibillion-dollar security contracts for missions in conflict zones.
Days before the ambassador’s visit, a Libyan security official had warned an American diplomat that foreigners should keep a low profile in Benghazi because of growing threats. Other Westerners had fled the city, and the British had closed their consulate.
Despite the security inadequacies and the warning, Stevens traveled to Benghazi to meet openly with local leaders. Eager to establish a robust diplomatic presence in the cradle of the rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi, the ousted autocratic leader, U.S. officials appear to have overlooked the stark signs that militancy was on the rise.
This account of Stevens’ last days and the attack, which includes new details about security at the compound and the ambassador’s movements, was assembled from more than a dozen interviews with American officials, prominent Libyans and others familiar with the case. Most agreed to speak only on the condition that they not be named.
The attack marked the first violent death of a serving ambassador in a generation and has become a thorn in President Barack Obama’s reelection bid. It also raised the prospect that a country Washington assumed would become a staunch ally as it recovered from its short civil war could turn into a haven for fundamentalists.
U.S. officials investigating the assault say their preliminary assessment indicates that members of Ansar al-Sharia, a fundamentalist group with deep roots in Benghazi, carried out the attack with the help of a few militants linked to al-Qaida’s offshoot in Africa.
When bullets and rocket-propelled grenades started raining on the main U.S. compound, the small guard force was quickly overrun, and the building was set ablaze. That image, along with the now iconic photo of a dying Stevens being dragged by Libyans toward safety, could have hardly been further from the message the veteran ambassador had traveled to Benghazi to spread: America was there to stay.
“The revolution started there,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the ongoing probes into the attacks. “We wanted to make sure the U.S. was seen as interested in the views of the east. There was no greater advocate of that than Chris.”
Ties to Benghazi
Stevens was enthralled to be back in Benghazi, a city where he had served the year before as a special envoy to the rebels, said a close Libyan friend who was by his side on Sept. 10.
“He had connections, contacts all over the eastern part of the country,” said the friend, who asked not to be identified because he fears his close affiliation with Americans poses a risk. “Benghazi was like his home. He wore jeans. He used to run outside the compound. He felt very safe going to markets, to the square, meeting friends for coffee.”
The main purpose of Stevens’ visit was opening an education and cultural facility that would be called the American Space. The initiative was a cornerstone of his goal of deepening Washington’s relationship with Libya, an oil-rich nation emerging from four decades of Gadhafi’s bizarre, totalitarian rule.
Once a nuclear threat and avowed nemesis of the West, Libya appeared poised to become a close ally in a region seething with anti-American sentiment. After all, NATO airstrikes had helped save Benghazi and turn the tide against Gadhafi’s forces. Stevens was transfixed by the possibilities.
“He lost friends during the revolution, as did almost every Libyan, and he respected their losses,” Hannah Draper, a Foreign Service officer stationed in Tripoli wrote in a tribute to Stevens posted on her blog. “He supported the revolution, but his real passion was rebuilding a free Libya.”
Two weeks before his death, Stevens had taken an important step toward normalizing relations with Libya by opening a full-service consular section in Tripoli, enabling Libyans to apply for visas.
“Since returning to Libya as ambassador in May, there’s one question I’ve heard almost every day from Libyans: ‘When are you going to start issuing visas again,’ ” Stevens told attendants at the Aug. 26 groundbreaking of the consular section. “Now, at least you have your answer: tomorrow.”
Insecurity has beset Libya since the country’s civil war ended in October 2011 with Gadhafi’s dramatic execution. Militias have been reluctant to disband or surrender weapons. After the U.S. Embassy formally reopened in Tripoli last fall, the U.S. military’s Africa command dispatched a team to help build its security infrastructure. The troops, however, were never assigned to bolster security at the site in Benghazi, said Eric Elliott, a spokesman for the Africa command. Elliott and the State Department could not say why.
During the summer, the military team became smaller as the State Department assumed responsibility for security at the embassy at the end of July. Those who remained turned their attention to building a relationship with Libya’s burgeoning armed forces, Elliott said.
The Benghazi mission was an anomaly for U.S. diplomatic posts. It was not a formal consulate, but rather a liaison office established before Gadhafi’s ouster. It was staffed by the Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, a State Department office that dispatches government officials to hardship posts for short tours. Instead of signing a costly security contract similar to those the government has for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department this summer awarded a contract to Blue Mountain, a small British security firm, to provide local guards at the Benghazi mission. The yearlong contract, which took effect in March, was worth $387,413, a minuscule sum for war-zone contracting. Blue Mountain and the State Department declined to comment for this story.
Security in eastern Libya deteriorated sharply in recent months. A string of attacks, some linked to fundamentalist groups, made clear that Westerners were no longer safe. The International Committee of the Red Cross suspended operations and evacuated staff in the east after a June 12 attack on its compound in the port city of Misrata. In Benghazi, convoys transporting the United Nation’s country chief and the British ambassador were attacked in April and June, respectively. The British government shut down its consulate soon afterward.
The U.S. mission had a close call of its own, when a small roadside bombing detonated outside the mission on June 6, causing no injuries or significant damage. But the Americans stayed put.
Signs of a threat
Geoff Porter, a risk and security analyst who specializes in North Africa, said the sudden and stark shift from “predictable violence to terrorism” in the east over the summer was unmistakable.
“The U.S. intelligence apparatus must have had a sense the environment was shifting,” he said.
But if Stevens was deeply worried about deteriorating security, as CNN has reported he wrote in an entry in his journal, he kept quiet, said the Libyan friend who was with him the day before the attack.
“We didn’t talk about attacks,” the friend said. “He would have never come on the anniversary of Sept. 11 if he had had any concerns.”
Three days before the attack, a U.S. official in Benghazi met with security leaders to ask them about the threat level, a senior Libyan official in the east said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
The American did not disclose the ambassador’s visit.
“They told him, ‘Look, if there’s going to be any foreign presence (in the city), it better be discreet,’ ” the Libyan official said.
The assault on the compound was launched from three directions around 9 p.m., the Libyan official said. Guards and members of militias friendly to the United States who responded to try to repel the attackers were shot in the legs, the official said, suggesting the gunmen had been instructed not to shoot to kill. Sean Smith, 34, an information management officer, died during that phase of the attack, and Stevens, 52, was trapped and mortally injured.
A group of Americans managed to escape to a second compound about a mile away, according to the Libyan official and others with knowledge of the attack. The site was used by U.S. diplomatic and intelligence personnel, according to people briefed on the attack.
Soon after the evacuated Americans arrived there, the second location came under attack, according to the Libyan official and a Libyan fighter who assisted in the evacuation. The fighter, a member of the militia known as the February 17th Brigade, which was friendly toward the Americans, received a call from a counterpart in Tripoli. He said the Americans at the second compound needed help and told him to get in touch with a man named Paul. When the militia leader got the American on the phone, Paul told him not to send his men.
“Listen, my men have orders to shoot on sight, and the situation in the safe house is under control,” Paul told the militia leader, according to the account by the Libyan official.
In a lengthy firefight at the second compound, two former Navy SEALs who had been deployed to Benghazi as security contractors were killed. Hours later, the Americans who survived managed to get to the airport and flee the city.
This week, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli evacuated nonessential staff, citing security risks. Youssef Arish, whose family owns property next door to the so-called consulate and remembered Stevens fondly, said most Libyans were bereft by the attack.
“It’s only a few people, and they don’t just hate America,” he said. “They hate the (Libyan) government; they consider them non-Muslims. They’re just a few people, but they’re going to hurt the relations between Libya and other” nations.