The Benghazi compound was an anomaly for U.S. diplomatic posts. It was not a formal consulate and certainly not an embassy. It was a liaison office established before Gaddafi’s ouster. It was staffed by the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization 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 facilities 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 compound. The year-long 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 article.
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 an attack June 12 on its compound in the port city of Misrata. In Benghazi, convoys transporting the U.N. 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. outpost had a close call of its own June 6, when a small roadside bomb detonated outside the walls, causing no injuries or significant damage. But the Americans stayed put.
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 September 11th 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 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,” Peter 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 embassy staff, citing security risks. The Benghazi compound was an empty, burned-out husk.
Youssef Arish, whose family owns property next door to the facility and who remembers 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.
Hauslohner reported from Benghazi and Julie Tate contributed to this report.