Benghazi Victim: Ambassador Stevens always saw the best in Libya

 He had gladly accepted the role of American liaison to the rebels at the start of the uprising. And in April 2011 he chose to sail into Benghazi on a Greek cargo ship instead of taking the easier land route from Egypt, just to savor the romance of his arrival in a free Libya.

 
stevens_small Benghazi Victim: Ambassador Stevens always saw the best in Libya  J. Christopher Stevens talking to journalists in Benghazi in April 2011. (Bryan Denton for The New York Times)

An experienced Arabist with previous postings in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Stevens, then 52, was among the most influential voices in American policy toward Libya. He helped shape the Obama administration’s conviction that it could work with the rebels, even those previously hostile to the West, to build a friendly, democratic government.

The rebels, including the Islamists, were eager to befriend the American envoy. Colonel Qaddafi “was saying the West was supporting these ‘Al Qaeda’ terrorists,” said Ashraf Ben Ismail, a wealthy businessman, so he invited Mr. Stevens and several Islamist brigade leaders to a meeting in his spacious salon to dispel those fears. All attested to their support for building a modern, democratic Libya. (The more hard-line Islamist rebels declined to attend.)

Still, Mr. Stevens and other Americans also knew that Benghazi had a history of violence against Western diplomats. In 1967, a United States Consulate there was ransacked and burned by a mob angry about American support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli war. In 2006, a mob burned down the Italian Consulate because a cabinet minister in Rome had worn a T-shirt mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

By the summer of 2012, a new pattern of hit-and-run attacks against Western interests was emerging. There were three separate attacks in Benghazi involving small explosives that locals used for fishing, two on the American compound and a third near a United Nations convoy.

Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah, told The Washington Post that he disapproved of attacking Western diplomats, but he added, “If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it.”

After a rocket-propelled grenade seriously wounded a guard in the British ambassador’s convoy, the British began limiting their presence in Benghazi to day trips, depositing their vehicles and weapons inside the American compound at night before flying back to Tripoli, the capital.

But the Americans remained optimistic. Taking stock of the deteriorating security situation on Aug. 8, 2012, a cable titled “The Guns of August” and signed by Mr. Stevens struck an understanding tone about the absence of effective policing.

It noted that Libyans were wary about the imposition of a strong security apparatus so soon after they expunged Colonel Qaddafi’s. “A diverse group of independent actors” — including criminals and “former regime elements” as well as “Islamist extremists” — was exploiting the vacuum, the cable said. But it found no signs of an organized campaign against the West.

Sept. 11, 2012

9:42P.M.

At the time of the attack, Mr. Stevens, Mr. Smith and an armed American diplomatic security officer are in the main villa. Three other armed American officers are behind the villa, and one is in an office monitoring security cameras. Three armed Libyan militia fighters and five unarmed Libyan guards are also in the mission.

step3_640 Benghazi Victim: Ambassador Stevens always saw the best in Libya

“What we are going through — and what people here are resolved to get through — is a confluence rather than a conspiracy,” the cable concluded.

The Americans had another reason to feel secure: the team of at least 20 people from the Central Intelligence Agency operating out of an unmarked Benghazi compound known as “the Annex” that was about a half-mile southeast of the mission.

Some were highly skilled commandos. “I knew the backup guys at the Annex, who were quite heavily trained and equipped,” said an Obama administration official who visited in the months before the attack.

In addition to buying up weapons spilled out during the revolt, the team was assigned to gather intelligence about anti-Western terrorists and the big militia leaders. But there were hundreds of small brigades, affiliations were fluid and overlapping, and the agents often found themselves turning to Mr. Stevens for advice because he seemed to know the militia leaders better than any other American expert.

Despite his expertise and the C.I.A.’s presence, though, “there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests,” a State Department investigation into the mission attack later concluded.

The C.I.A. kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to Al Qaeda. Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden.

Mr. Qumu had been apprehended in Pakistan in 2001 and detained for six years at Guantánamo Bay before returning home to Derna, a coastal city near Benghazi that was known for a high concentration of Islamist extremists.

But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.

“We heard a lot about Sufian bin Qumu,” said one American diplomat in Libya at the time. “I don’t know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah.”

Sept. 11, 2012

6:45A.M.

Guards at the diplomatic mission see a man in a police uniform taking photographs with a cellphone from an unfinished building across the street.

step4_640 Benghazi Victim: Ambassador Stevens always saw the best in Libya

The more moderate leaders of the big militias developed close ties to the Westerners.

At least one Islamist militia leader liked to play basketball at the British compound. Mr. Bukatef of the February 17 Brigade was a fluent English speaker who visited the American compound in Benghazi so often that “it was like he was my best friend,” one diplomat joked.

“We thought we were sufficiently close to them,” said one Western diplomat who was in Benghazi not long before the attack. “We all thought that if anything threatening was happening, that they would tip us off.”

A State Department review later found “a tendency on the part of policy, security and other U.S. government officials to rely heavily on the probability of warning intelligence.” It called the Benghazi attack “a stark reminder” of the dangers that entailed.