Light on security

A Libyan government militia guarding the main entrance of the US consulate that was attacked last week, fixes a note written by Libyans against the attack, in Benghazi city on Tuesday.

BENGHAZI – A lack of basic improvements to perimeter security at the US consulate in Benghazi made it an easy target for the attackers who stormed it last week, killing a US ambassador for the first time in 33 years.

The Libyan owners of the main villa rented by the diplomats was surprised at how little, beyond some barbed wire and security cameras, they added to the walled residential compound, on a quiet street where volatile militiamen were free to roam.

Most striking was the absence of a second line of defence inside the main gate on to the street; that left the few guards in the compound little chance of holding off a crowd once the gate, which showed no sign it had been forced, was swung open.

US officials have yet to give a full account of the night of September 11-12 and the sack of the compound that served as the consulate for Libya’s second city and the east of the country.

US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was overcome by smoke and died, trapped alone inside the burning villa after all the other Americans withdrew. Another diplomat, Sean Smith, and two US security men were also killed that night.

The incident has become an election issue, with Republican opponents accusing President Barack Obama’s government of failing in the basic duty to keep the envoy safe.

The son of the owner of one of two villas making up the consulate told Reuters that US diplomats made few improvements to its perimetre security since renting it last year. What was added – barbed wire atop the garden walls and CCTV cameras – were things that he, in common with many better off Libyans, would have done for himself anyway as the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s police state brought a new lawlessness to Benghazi.

Crucially, given how a protest on the street was followed by a crowd surging into the compound, the main entrance featured no “air-lock” – a second internal gate, common to such official compounds in hostile environments around the world, which can trap intruders who force their way inside past the first guards.

That may, to some degree, reflect choices made by Stevens himself: the ambassador’s many admirers say a low-key approach to security was one of the factors that made him an unusually effective diplomat in the Arab world, widely praised for being both intrepid and approachable by those he wished to help.

Yet to be determined

Much of what happened that night – including the number of attackers, their level of sophistication, the extent of planning behind the raid and the degree to which it grew out of a small protest against an anti-Muslim video filmed in the United States – is either disputed or has yet to be determined.

But the facts that are not in dispute raise difficult questions that could hover both over US domestic politics in the run-up to the November 6 presidential election, and over the ability of American diplomats to do their jobs in future in Libya and other dangerous locations around the world.

The US consulate in Benghazi had already been attacked by bombers in June. Britain closed its own mission on the same street after its ambassador survived a rocket attack on his convoy, also in June. Other foreign outposts, such as that of the Red Cross, have also come under attack.

While public opinion in Libya, and Benghazi in particular, is broadly pro-American because of the US role in supporting the uprising that toppled Gaddafi, US officials have warned of a threat from Islamist militants training in camps in hills nearby, including groups Washington says are linked to al Qaeda.

The attack fell on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the United States, a date of particular security awareness. (Reuters)

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