An American chemistry teacher out for a morning jog was shot and killed in Benghazi, Libya, Thursday, just steps from the burnt-out US diplomatic compound where Ambassador Christopher Stevens died in a firebombing in September 2012.
The killing of Ronald Thomas Smith II, a much-loved teacher at Benghazi’s English-language International School, puts the violent and splintered oil port city – which gained household familiarity in the US after the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans – back in the news.
Again, the portrait is emerging of an American living in a hostile environment, yet who spoke of the special place in his heart for Libya and was doing what he loved when he was killed.
“Libya’s best friend” is how Ronnie Smith described himself to acquaintances and on social media.
And again, as in Stevens’ death, the hand of Islamist extremists who control portions of a city that was the birthplace of Libya’s revolution against the regime of Muammar Gadhafi is suspected in the killing of Mr. Smith.
Smith, who was from Austin, Texas, was planning to return home to visit family when he was killed, according to officials at the International School.
US officials refused to speculate on why Smith, a popular teacher who had come to Libya last year from a teaching job in Egypt, would have been targeted.
“We are working with the Libyan authorities to ascertain the facts of this tragedy,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at a press briefing Thursday.
But the Libyan press and Libyans commenting on social media were not shy about pointing fingers. Some noted, for example, that on Sunday Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the American-born Al Qaeda operative and spokesman, issued an audio statement in which he called for striking at Americans and American interests.
Mr. Gadahn said he was issuing the call in retaliation for the Oct. 5 kidnapping by US special forces of suspected Al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi outside his home in Tripoli, Libya’s capital.
Smith was thought to be one of the last Westerners still in Benghazi, a city that was abandoned by Western consulates and other foreign operations after the US diplomatic compound attack and amid an accelerating deterioration in security.
The State Department issued a travel warning for Libya on June 7 “and advised against all travel to Benghazi,” Ms. Harf said, noting that the advisory warned of “extremely insecure areas” of the city.
Libyan authorities have been attempting to “regularize” members of eastern Libya’s varying militias into the Libyan security forces. But Benghazi remains a city divided into fiefdoms controlled by warring groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, the radical Islamist group suspected by US authorities in the firebombing of the US compound.
Dozens of Libyan security forces have been gunned down in Benghazi and eastern Libya over the past year. Indeed, Libyan press reports of Smith’s killing noted that three security officers were also killed in Benghazi on Thursday.
Despite Benghazi’s sprawling size, Smith would have been known as one of the last foreigners and perhaps the last American in the city. He may also have raised eyebrows with occasional rants on his Twitter account in which he blasted the Islamists for the havoc he saw them wreaking on average Libyans.
But mostly Smith spoke about his love for Libya and the warmth of its people – as Stevens had, in commentaries on his pre-ambassadorial days as the US envoy to the Libyan opposition in Benghazi.
And that warmth was returned. As the news of Smith’s killing spread in Benghazi, students and in some cases their parents took to social media to express their feelings of loss.
“Thank you, sir, for believing in our Libyan children when half of their own country had given up on them,” wrote one. Said another: “You’re the first teacher I ever cry about, you were a great friend of mine & i already miss you, may god rest your soul.”