BENGHAZI, Libya — A Libyan security guard who said he was at the U.S. consulate here when it was attacked Tuesday night has provided new evidence that the assault on the compound that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was a planned attack by armed Islamists and not the outgrowth of a protest over an online video that mocks Islam and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad.
The guard, interviewed Thursday in the hospital where he is being treated for five shrapnel wounds in one leg and two bullet wounds in the other, said that the consulate area was quiet – “there wasn’t a single ant outside,” he said – until about 9:35 p.m., when as many as 125 armed men descended on the compound from all directions.
The men lobbed grenades into the compound, wounding the guard and knocking him to the ground, then stormed through the facility’s main gate, shouting “God is great” and moving to one of the many villas that make up the consulate compound. He said there had been no warning that an attack was imminent.
“Wouldn’t you expect if there were protesters outside that the Americans would leave?” the guard said.
The guard, located by searching hospitals for people injured Tuesday night, said he was 27 years old but declined to give his name. He asked that the hospital where he is being treated not be identified for fear that militants would track him down and kill him. He said he was able to escape by telling one of the attackers that he was only a gardener at the compound. The attacker took him to the hospital, the guard said.
Libyan authorities told reporters Thursday that they had made four arrests in connection with the consulate assault, but they cautioned that leaders of the group blamed for the attack, an Islamist organization known as Ansar al Shariah, denied that they had given the order to attack. But the guard’s tale suggested that whoever ordered the assault had been able to call upon a large number of people to carry out what appeared to be an organized attack.
Wanis al Sharif, the deputy interior minister responsible for Libya’s eastern region, which includes Benghazi, told a group of local reporters that in addition to the four people under arrest, authorities were monitoring others for possible involvement in the attack.
“There is a group under our control, and there is another we are monitoring,” Sharif said.
Sharif said that Ansar al Shariah’s leaders had suggested that those carrying the group’s flag during the assault were rogue members acting on their own.
“They called me and told me you have wronged us,” Sharif said. “They told me that there may be individual acts.”
Ansar al Shariah – Partisans of Islamic law – which is based in Benghazi, is one of the largest Islamic extremist groups now operating in Libya, according to an analysis published Wednesday by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The shadowy organization is led by Muhammad Zahawi and maintains "online connections" to a similarly named group in Tunisia. A unit, or katiba, based in Derna, an eastern town from which extremists made their way to fight U.S. forces in Iraq, is commanded by a former Guantanamo prison detainee, Abu Sufayan bin Qumu, according to Zelin.
Where Sharif’s findings would fit in the U.S. investigation into the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other Americans remained unclear. But the guard’s tale suggests that there were many more than four people involved in the attack.
The attack itself, the guard said, was immediate and bold, initiated by a group of men who approached the compound and lobbed grenades over the wall. Just behind them were scores of men, shooting wildly and yelling “God is great.”
The guard, who said he’d been hired seven months ago by a British company to protect the compound, said the first explosion knocked him to the ground, and he was unable to fire his weapon. Four other contracted guards and three members of Libya’s 17th of February Brigade, a group formed during the first days of the anti-Gadhafi uprising and now considered part of Libya’s military, were protecting the outside perimeter of the compound.
After storming through the gate, the guard said, the men rushed into one of the compound’s buildings, meeting no resistance. The guard did not say whether that was the building where the ambassador was.
Thirty minutes later, the guard said, he realized he was about to lose consciousness and asked one of the attackers for help, saying he was merely a gardener at the compound. The man agreed to drive him to the hospital. As they were leaving, the guard said he saw the attackers enter a second villa on the compound.
Stevens and consulate computer expert Sean Smith are believed to have been overcome by smoke in the main consulate building. Two other State Department employees were shot and killed by the invaders at another building on the compound where Americans had sought refuge. The two men, both former Navy SEALs who were working as security contractors, were identified by family members as Glen A. Doherty, 42, a native of Winchester, Mass., and Tyrone Woods, 41, of Imperial Beach, Calif. At least three other embassy employees were wounded.
A Libyan emergency room doctor who treated Stevens said Libyan security guards brought him to the hospital at 1 a.m., his lips black and his body reeking of smoke.
He was officially pronounced dead at 1:45 a.m. from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, but the doctor who tried to revive him, Ziad Bouzaid, 31, said Stevens was dead on arrival. Bouzaid said the body bore no other signs of injury.
The guard’s tale is consistent with a version offered Wednesday by the man who had leased the compound to the United States.
Standing outside the fire-gutted compound, Mohammad al Bishari said the attack began with assailants carrying assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and the black flag of Ansar al Shariah moving from two directions against the compound.
The FBI has launched its own investigation into what took place, and two American destroyers, the USS Laboon and the USS McFaul, were expected to take up positions by early next off the coast near Benghazi in what many here interpreted as preparations for a possible retaliatory attack. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama promised justice in the case.
Meanwhile, fallout continued Thursday from anger over an online video that Muslims said denigrated their religion.
In Sanaa, Yemen, demonstrators protesting the video tried to storm the U.S. Embassy, making it past an initial security line but failing to make it to any of the main embassy compound buildings. Demonstrators burned tires and spray-painted “Death of America” on the wall surrounding the compound before they were repulsed by Yemeni security forces firing tear gas and warning shots.
No embassy staff was injured, but four demonstrators were killed and as many as 30 others injured.
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi quickly condemned the attack and vowed to punish those responsible for it.
Unrest continued as well Thursday in Cairo, where on Tuesday protesters breached the embassy compound’s wall and tore down and burned the American flag. Protests continued Thursday, even though Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, speaking publicly on the attacks for the first time, condemned them.
No one has claimed responsibility for the consulate assault, something that perhaps is unsurprising in this part of Libya, where Stevens was a popular ambassador representing a nation many here believed saved Benghazi from a massacre during the rebellion against toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi’s tanks were on the edge of the city, preparing to overrun it, when NATO jets began their bombing campaign March 19, 2011.
Indeed, throughout the day Thursday, Libyans nationwide held rallies in support of the ambassador, carrying signs in Arabic and at times broken English offering their support.
“Sorry People of America, this not the Pehavior our Islam and Profit,” one read.
A young man in Benghazi carried a sign that read: “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyan people”
Zway reported from Benghazi, Libya, and Youssef from Cairo. McClatchy special correspondents Adam Baron from Sanaa, Yemen, and Mel Frykberg from Cairo contributed.