BENGHAZI, Libya — As Libyan and American investigators began probing the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues, there was abundant evidence of the assault’s fury.
The sand-colored buildings in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi are blackened by smoke and gutted, and three embassy cars are burned-out wrecks. While the attackers never breached a smaller housing compound a mile away, it was hit by a heavy projectile and a sustained assault that lasted through the night left bullet marks in the walls.
The weapons, the violence and the duration of the attacks, two U.S. intelligence officials said, suggest that it was carried out by radical Islamists, perhaps to avenge the June death of al-Qaida leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in a U.S. drone attack or to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“This wasn’t a group of individuals who ran down to the garage and picked up a few AK-47s and showed up and started shooting at the consulate,” Rep. Mike Rogers, who heads the House intelligence committee, told reporters Thursday. “This was clearly a planned, coordinated event that took place on 9/11. And as an old FBI guy, you don’t believe in too many coincidences, let alone that many coincidences all in the same day.”
U.S. intelligence officials took a more cautious stance. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to talk publicly, both said it isn’t clear whether Islamic extremists, perhaps veterans of the war in Afghanistan and possibly now allied with their former enemies in the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces, planned the attack.
More likely, they said, militants infiltrated a peaceful demonstration and used it as cover for assaulting the compound.
The officials said they had no evidence that al-Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan directed the attack, and none that its North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, did, either.
Nevertheless, they said, militants in North Africa have obtained numerous weapons, including some of the type used in the attack, that were looted from Gadhafi’s arsenals.
“There’s a possibility of an al-Qaida link,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. As Libya moves to a democratic system, Dunne said in an interview, “you have in Libya several different groups unhappy with the way the political order is evolving and want to destabilize it.”
The consulate’s landlord, Ahmed Busheri, said in an interview that Libyans who witnessed the attack told him it began at about 10 p.m. on Sept. 11 with protests against a film made in the U.S. that demonstrators said insults the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
He and Mohammed el Kish, a former press officer with the National Transitional Council, which handed power to the National Congress elected in July, both said it was unclear who started shooting.
“It might have started with the Libyan guards firing,” el Kish said in an interview.
“I think the Libyan guards may have fired like this,” Busheri said, indicating a man firing a gun into the air.
What’s not in dispute is that a gun battle ensued.
Bullet casings lie on the ground outside the consulate, a walled facility that includes four sand-colored villas. A rocket, which appears to have been fired from inside the consulate compound, hit one of the concrete blocks placed around the facility to prevent cars from parking close to it.
Busheri, who rents the premises to the U.S. government, said he was told that protesters, some of them armed, then swarmed over the walls. He said the attackers got past the consulate’s Libyan guards, and that Stevens and at least two of what he said was a three-person security detail moved to a villa to the left of the main gate.
The villa has two white sandbagged emplacements that Busheri said were built months earlier so the villa could serve as a safe house if the consulate compound’s outer walls were breached. U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in risky environments often have safe houses or rooms.
Pointing to flecks of blood on opposite walls, Busheri said two members of the security staff were killed on a terrace by the villa.
“The two Americans died here,” he said.
Busheri said that Stevens was inside the villa and was overcome by smoke, contrary to earlier reports that he was killed by a grenade attack on his car.
Also killed in the attack were Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information officer, and Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, two former Navy SEALs who were working as security personnel, according to a State Department news release.
The consulate building is a burned-out ruin, as are the villas, which stink of smoke and rotting food. Furniture has been dumped in the swimming pool, and more broken furniture, clothing and food packets from U.S. military field rations lie scattered, apparently by looters.
Stevens was brought to the city’s largest hospital, Benghazi Medical Centre, at 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, said hospital director Dr. Fathi al Jehani.
Jehani said in an interview at the medical center that hospital night duty staff members told him they’d heard the sound of fighting earlier that morning and had dispatched an ambulance to the scene, but that the ambassador and a Libyan translator working for the consulate were brought up the emergency ramp by civilians in a private car.
Stevens “had no form of identification on him,” Jehani said. “One of the people with him said this is the ambassador. He was dead on arrival. We tried to revive him.”
Ambulances brought 10 more wounded people to the hospital, two Americans and eight Libyan security guards, Jehani said. All but one of the guards has been treated and released, with the remaining guard undergoing surgery Thursday, he said.
Thomas Burke, a Boston-based doctor making his second visit to Benghazi, arrived at the medical center the morning after the attack for what was supposed to be a meeting with Stevens.
“The hospital staff were really devastated,” Burke, chief of the Division of Global Health and Human Rights in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a phone interview. “Several of the doctors who tried to take care of him were crying.”
Burke, who was assisting Benghazi Medical Centre with training, said he could hear explosions from the attack from the Tibesti Hotel, where he was staying with American colleagues about a mile from the consulate.
An hour before the explosions began, Burke said, his colleagues spoke to Stevens by phone about a meeting the next day regarding a cooperation agreement between Benghazi Medical Centre and Massachusetts General.
“He voiced remarkable delight” about the partnership, Burke said.
When the attack on the consulate occurred, “nobody really knew what was happening,” Burke said. Benghazi hospital officials kept him apprised of developments through the night.
“The hospital had to brace itself for what was going to be an onslaught of wounded,” Burke said, in explaining the frequent calls by hospital officials to their U.S. colleagues.
A group of diplomats escaped the consulate under fire in a white armored jeep, according to Adel Ibrahim, one of two landlords who own a compound approximately a mile south of the consulate that houses most of the dozen or so U.S. diplomats based in Benghazi. The residential compound is smaller than the consulate premises and is surrounded by a high wall.
Ibrahim, who said he didn’t witness the diplomats’ arrival, said that his staff told him the American’s jeep reached the gate of the housing compound early on the morning of Sept. 12.
“I saw the vehicle later,” he said in an interview. “It had bullet holes.”
Ibrahim said about an hour later, attackers whom he assumed had come from the consulate fired machine guns and rockets into the compound. He showed a Bloomberg reporter a hole made by a heavy projectile in the wall of a one-story house and smears of what he said was blood where he said one American died.
The other landlord, Kolan Garmud, said the surviving diplomats remained in the housing compound, with the attackers outside, until Libyan security forces arrived at a time he estimated as 6 a.m.
“We feel a great loss,” Garmud said of Stevens. “We saw him as an ally, as a friend; he knew the people of Libya.”
Burke, who travels frequently through Africa and returned home last night, said many residents of Benghazi “are so happy to see Americans, unlike anything I’ve seen.”
“To see all the people weeping over the loss of Ambassador Stevens is really moving,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of goodwill. I hope we can be thoughtful in how we proceed.”
With assistance from Nicole Gaouette, David Lerman, Todd Shields and John Walcott in Washington.