For Benghazi residents, 2012 attack on US compound started city's descent into violence

Much of Libya's coastal eastern city lies in ruins and fear remains, even though extremist groups have been eliminated

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Ten years after the September 11 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, which killed US ambassador J Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the embassy building remains empty and deserted, despite its restoration.

The building, in the central Beloun neighbourhood, is a witness to a city living with the scars of 10 years of violence.

"It was a quiet night,” Ibrahim Zaidan, 54, who lives near the embassy building, recalled.

“Suddenly, armed clashes erupted and my children were screaming in fear. We ran to help but only found bodies lying on the ground and a big fire in the embassy building," he told The National.

"I did not realise at the time the extent of the danger that was to come. Today, after years of wars, destruction, killing and terror, I realised that the attack was a declaration of the control of terrorist groups over the city."

The damaged interior of the US consulate building in Benghazi after a militant attack on September 11, 2012.  AFP

The Al Qaeda-aligned group Ansar Al Sharia launched the attack on the American diplomatic compound at 9.40pm on September 11, 2012, killing Stephens and US Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. Hours later, at 4am, the group attacked a nearby CIA compound with mortars, killing two CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and wounding 10 others.

The attacks, coming a year after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a popular uprising that began in Benghazi, came amid a general increase in lawlessness across Libya as rival groups and militias battled for power. The country remains divided between power centres in the east and west despite UN-led peace efforts.

Muhammad Al Warfali, 37, is one of many residents who left Beloun, a centre for international organisations and diplomatic missions, after the attack, fearing more violence.

“When I saw the building burning, I decided to move, especially after my wife was hit by shrapnel,” he said.

"I feared that my family would be injured or killed in similar attacks by terrorist groups, especially since my house was close to the headquarters of international organisations that may be targeted in the future,” he told The National.

“The attack was the beginning of a new phase of killing, vandalism and destruction that swept the city for years, as families were displaced and many innocents were killed,” said Shim Boufaneh, a Libyan researcher and political activist.

“Terrorist groups took control of the city after that attack, but hundreds of people demonstrated against their presence.”

The attacks announced the start of a wave of violence that would engulf the city for years until its liberation in 2017 by the Libyan National Army under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Lost futures

For Khadija Al Tajouri, 34, the attack cost her the chance to study abroad.

“It destroyed my future,” said Ms Al Tajouri, now a graduate student at the University of Benghazi's Faculty of Law.

"I was one of 14 students applying to study abroad in 2012, in the US, UK and Malaysia, but procedures stopped completely and I was unable to obtain a visa because of that attack."

The impact of the attacks on travel was not short-lived, Ms Boufaneh said. "Young people and businessmen were the most affected, especially when in 2017 many were prevented from returning to the US because of the Donald Trump administration travel ban on Libyans.”

Ms Al Tajouri is one of many young Libyans who suffered economically and socially from the political repercussions, despite being opposed to the violence.

Ms Boufaneh said that once terrorist groups took control of Benghazi after the 2012 attack, they tried to recruit residents with money but were unsuccessful. “Hundreds took to the streets against them,” she said.

Destroyed by war

Libya is still suffering from conflict and war. Benghazi has lived in relative security after its liberation from extremist groups in 2017, but its streets still witness occasional fighting between security forces and armed criminal gangs, and residents live with the fear of new conflicts.

According to the Benghazi Security Directorate, terrorist activity has been almost eliminated, although there is a level of violence by criminals.

However, thousands of residents who had to flee the city during military operations against terrorist groups between 2014 and 2017 are still waiting to return to their homes.

Entire neighbourhoods that were completely destroyed in the fighting have yet to be rebuilt. According to the Benghazi municipality, 6,666 housing units were destroyed, especially in the central Al Sabri area and in Ikhrbish, and more than 28,000 families are internally displaced in the city.

“Most Libyans aspire to the rule of law and state institutions for which the 2011 revolution took place,” Mr Al Warfali said. “I want our children to see our country prosperous, safe and stable.”

“In the western region of the country, armed militias abound, unlike in the cities in the east, which now enjoy security. I look forward to the day when weapons are withdrawn from the hands of armed militias, and when the state imposes its control over the whole country,” the former Beloun resident said.

This article was written in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: September 11, 2022, 4:29 PM