In Libya, the man who would avenge Amb. Stevens

Fahed Bakoush shot some of the last footage of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. He and other young activists have since help oust a violent militia from Benghazi.

Ibrahim Alaguri/AP/File
This Sept. 12 file photo shows a man walking through a room in the gutted US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The camera captured a clamor of voices, a crush of bodies in a corridor, and then the blond hair and white T-shirt of a man lying on the floor.

Amateur videographer Fahed Bakoush didn’t know it then, but the blond man, Christopher Stevens, was about to become the first US ambassador killed while on duty in more than three decades.

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month was, for Bakoush, a call to action. Part of a young generation of activists who cut their teeth in last year’s revolution, he was spurred to redouble his efforts to help build a stable country.

Ambassador Stevens’s death, a result of the consulate attack, has left Washington focused on the fear that militant Islamists are gaining a foothold in post-Qaddafi Libya. Bakoush says armed groups of all stripes are holding Libya back. In the wake of the attack, he helped organize demonstrations that gave new voice to Libyans’ growing weariness of guns and instability.

At one such demonstration, the anger directed toward a local militia was so fierce that the group withdrew from its compound without a fight. 

“I want to see political parties, not militias with guns,” says Bakoush, 21. 

It’s still unclear how a protest at the consulate over an anti-Islam film made in the US became the occasion for the attack that killed Stevens. But for many Libyans, it highlighted a fundamental problem: War has flooded the country with weapons, while the fledgling government has struggled to absorb militias into national security forces.

A personal revolution 

Bakoush’s own revolution started small: following exiled dissidents via the Internet and an instance of modest civil disobedience in December 2010, when he was an engineering student. 

When the director of the engineering institute asked the class if anyone had the then-national anthem on his mobile phone, Bakoush saw a chance for dissidence. He went to the intercom, and the director told him to press play. Seconds later, the pre-Qaddafi anthem resounded through the classrooms.

“What are you doing?” the director cried. “Get out!”

Bakoush was expelled the next day. But two months later, he had a new occupation as revolt erupted. He joined a militia and went to the front. Later, he traveled the region as an activist to promote Libya’s revolution.

On Sept. 11 of this year, a friend called with urgent news: A mob was burning the US consulate. Bakoush rushed to the scene.

“I heard them crying ‘We have entered!’,” he says. “Some were looting the buildings, others seemed afraid. It was chaos.”

Clutching his mobile phone with its video camera feature running, he followed young men into the depths of the consulate, where they discovered the prone body of a blond-haired man.

“We didn’t know who he was, just that he was foreign,” says Bakoush. “They wanted to protect him. He was alive, still breathing.”

The video clip he uploaded afterwards to YouTube shows the young men carrying Stevens toward an exit. The ambassador was brought to a hospital, where he was found to have died of smoke inhalation 

'The last straw'

For Bakoush – as for many Libyans – the attack was a last straw. The following week, he and other activists had one of Libya’s two mobile phone operators send a mass SMS urging customers to demonstrate that Friday against violence and “militias not integrated into the army.”

Details of the attack remain murky, but it underscored the persistence of armed groups despite the end of revolution.

On Sept. 21, thousands marched in Benghazi to call for peace. Among them was the engineering institute director.

“You’re like a son to me!” he said when he saw Bakoush. “I only expelled you because we were under pressure." 

The Benghazi marchers proceeded to a compound occupied by Ansar al Sharia, a hardline Islamist militia accused of involvement in the consulate attack. Perhaps swayed, or at least awed, by the show of people power, the group peacefully left the compound. Today it stands empty.

However, some marchers later clashed with members of the Rafallah al Sahati brigade, an officially pro-government militia that was apparently targeted by mistake. Eleven people were killed when members of the brigade opened fire. 

Bakoush has not rejoined his old militia since war ended last year. He is planning to take an engineering exam to complete his studies, and in July run unsuccessfully in congressional elections.

“The revolution is over,” he says. “Now, we must build Libya.”

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