By Peter Graff
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 21 (Reuters) - A lack of basic improvements to perimeter security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi made it an easy target for the attackers who stormed it last week, killing a U.S. ambassador for the first time in 33 years.
The Libyan owners of the main villa rented by the diplomats were 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.
U.S. officials have yet to give a full account of the night of Sept. 11-12 and the sack of the compound that served as the consulate for Libya's second city and the east of the country.
U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. diplomats made few improvements to its perimeter 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.
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 U.S. domestic politics in the run-up to the Nov. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. role in supporting the uprising that toppled Gaddafi, U.S. 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.
With the U.S. embassy in neighbouring Egypt also the target of angry demonstrators, a small protest in Benghazi began as the sun was going down around 7 p.m. That was followed by an attack by armed fighters. The consulate reported back to the embassy in Tripoli at 9:35 p.m. that it was under heavy attack.
U.S. and Libyan officials have given varying accounts of whether they believe the assault was planned in advance or grew spontaneously out of the protest. Some Libyan security officials have also suggested local guards may have let assailants in, partly out of fear for their own safety and possibly hoping to take the heat out of protests for which they had some sympathy.
Whatever the answers, the attackers would certainly have had easy access to weapons and would not have needed much in the way of a sophisticated battle plan to breach the compound defences.
The two villas and outhouses are surrounded by concrete walls, twice the height of a man and more, topped with barbed wire - standard features of middle-class housing in the region.
Mohammed Elipsheri, whose father owns one of the villas, said: "I don't think it was sufficient. We were going to add the wire and cameras ourselves if we were going to keep living there."
Security expert Tim Ripley of Jane's Defence Weekly said such modifications might have been enough for a temporary, occasional residence to be used by U.S. staff. But they were inappropriate for a permanent mission flying the American flag.
"By having an overt American presence in Benghazi," Ripley said, "They were making it an obvious target for anti-American groups, either demonstrators or more determined assailants.
"That would have warranted a more permanent and thorough security arrangement rather than the temporary and ad hoc structure that was in place."
The main gate was manned by Libyans who had no secure position from which to confront an assault. Inside, there were neither towers nor firing positions for U.S. security personnel. There were no U.S. troops, and, according to congressional staff sources, just five American civilian security staff.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has defended security arrangements, though her department's officials have declined to discuss specifics now that an official investigation is under way. Clinton said relying on locals for perimeter security was standard practice. But in other countries where the United States has recently been at war, notably in Iraq or Afghanistan, locals have little direct role.
Said Ripley: "Obviously there are questions about the risk assessment made about the loyalty and efficacy of locally recruited security staff in a country where the political allegiances of many of the armed groups are uncertain."
Fred Burton, a former special agent for the U.S. diplomatic Security Service who now works for the Stratfor consultancy, said there had been a "security failure" since the consulate lacked "concentric rings" of protection typical at other sites.
Saying the villas were classed a "temporary facility" for which normal security requirements had been waived, Burton added: "You have very minimal kinds of standards and you literally are flying by the seat of your pants. You're on a wing and a prayer, hoping that these kinds of events don't happen."
The main street entrance comprised a pair of metal gates whose locks appeared undamaged when viewed by Reuters after the attack and which showed little sign of being rammed or shot at. Intruders who swarmed inside had a clear run over well-tended lawns to reach the buildings housing the U.S. diplomats.
Even if the guards did not open the gate, a single assailant making it over a wall in the dark might have easily flung the entrance wide open in seconds. Journalists saw evidence of a hasty attempt to mount a defence in front of the diplomatic buildings - sandbags were piled in front of one, but stacked haphazardly not built into a well-constructed firing position.
Stevens, 52, was based in the capital Tripoli but often visited Benghazi, where he was held in high regard - as attested to by wreaths laid at the consulate since his death. He was respected not least for his willingness to be approachable to the locals and to venture where other officials feared to tread.
How far his manner was reflected in security preparations is unclear. His own fate, separated from his bodyguard in the confusion, is another perplexing element for U.S. investigators.
Washington has yet to disclose precisely when and how the other American personnel were evacuated to a safe location at another villa nearby, bringing with them the body of Smith who was killed in the initial attack.
A U.S. rescue party was flown to Benghazi airport. At some point these rescuers and their Benghazi militia escort also came under attack, including, Libyans say, from well-aimed mortar fire. Extracting the survivors was also delayed by a lack of transport after confusion over how many Americans were there.
That second assault has given rise to speculation that the whereabouts of the safe house had been leaked, although it is also possible that were simply followed or spotted.
Initial accounts from U.S. officials say the two other Americans were killed during the rescue.
Left at the villa, Stevens was found when the flames had died down and a crowd of looters and curious youths wandering through the compound forced their way past shutters into what may have been a "panic room", designated for emergency use.
Extensive cellphone video from local witnesses shows those who recovered him seemed concerned with trying to save his life.
Clothing store employee Yahya al-Furjani, 20, said he was among scores who showed up after the violence as word of the incident spread. Furjani, who appears in some of the footage, clambered into the cramped, smoke-filled room where the diplomat lay on the floor between a bed and door. The young Libyan shone a light from his cellphone at the body and saw from the fair hair that it was a foreigner, covered in soot.
He was sure the man was dead, but still held out hope.
"This destroyed our revolution," Furjani said of the attack, after watching video of himself carrying Stevens outside. "The Americans stood with us in our revolution. I wish I could carry this body back to America to let people there know that those people do not represent Benghazi. I represent Benghazi." (Editing by Alastair Macdonald)