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. service member in a war zone 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 U.S. diplomatic facilities in conflict zones, according to interviews with U.S. and Libyan officials and eyewitnesses in recent days.
Cautioned to be low-key
Days before the ambassador arrived from the embassy in Tripoli, 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 Gaddafi, the ousted autocratic leader, U.S. officials appear to have overlooked the stark signs that militancy was on the rise.
This account of Stevens’s 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 of anonymity.
The attack marked the first violent death of a serving ambassador in a generation and has become a thorn in President 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-Qaeda’s offshoot in Africa. Intelligence officers and a team of FBI agents in Libya are continuing the investigation.