A popular American teacher who described himself on Twitter as “Libya’s best friend” was gunned down in Benghazi on Thursday while jogging, raising fears that foreigners are among those being targeted in the surge of assassinations in that restive city.
Ronnie Smith, 33, who described himself online as a Texas native, was a chemistry teacher at Benghazi’s International School and had lived in the city for 18 months. He died not far from the U.S. Special Mission site and CIA compound, where attackers killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.
Since then, foreigners have been scarce in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, as militias that helped bring down the late leader Moammar Gadhafi have battled government forces for control. Militias dominate the city, and they’ve said that Westerners, whom they accuse of threatening their Islamist vision for Libya, are among their top targets. In addition to the United States, Great Britain and Italy have closed their diplomatic missions in Benghazi.
But it isn’t clear that the militias have the backing of Benghazi residents. Smith seemed to be particularly popular not only with students but also with liberal groups, who said they knew him personally.
On Twitter, his students created two hashtags, #ThankYouSmith and #MrSmithMemories to remember their teacher.
“#ThankYouSmith for everything, for risking your life everyday by being here. your presence in school will be missed,” wrote one student, @yzentani.
“You taught me to think like the electron and be the electron,” said another, who identified himself as Rahman Bader.
“He once told me he would stay in Libya even if he had no job. He was here for the experience. There is no better man,” posted @criminimed.
Smith “was doing his morning exercise when gunmen just shot him. I don’t know why. He was so sweet with everyone,” Adel al Mansouri, the director at the school, told the Reuters news service. The school confirmed Smith’s death.
The Libya Herald website quoted Mansouri as saying that Smith’s wife had returned to the United States recently and that her husband had been expected to join her over the holidays.
Pictures circulated on a Facebook page of a group called Libya Today that purported to show Smith after he’d been shot, lying facedown in the street. He was wearing navy blue jogging shorts, a gray sweatshirt and headphones. It was unclear who’d taken the photo.
The U.S. government confirmed that an American had been killed but didn’t release Smith’s name and offered no information about the circumstances of the death. “We offer our condolences to the victim’s loved one,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
No organization claimed responsibility for the shooting. The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, had no comment.
Since Stevens’ death last year, militias and insurgent groups, led by the extremist group Ansar al Shariah, have increased their hold on Benghazi, assassinating police officers, government officials and those thought to support Libya’s nascent government.
An Ansar al Shariah spokesman, Mohammed al Baraasy, told Libyan television last month that civilians weren’t being targeted in the assassination campaign. But in October, Islamists called for the kidnapping of American citizens after U.S. special forces snatched a suspected al Qaida member, Abu Anas al Libi, in front of his house in Tripoli. He was later taken to New York to stand trial on charges stemming from the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In recent weeks, the Libyan government increased its forces in Benghazi after insurgents killed seven troops and two civilians in a street battle last month. While the government boasted then that the militias had fled, residents recently told McClatchy that they were simply lying low until they’d strike again. Despite that increased presence, three Libyan soldiers were assassinated Thursday alone.
Smith apparently was aware of the risk he might face as an American living in Benghazi, but he seemed to take the threat lightly in a tweet he posted Nov. 5: “I understand I teach at a school of rich kids, so if (and when) I’m kidnapped by Ansar Al-Sharia, who’s gonna pay the ransom?”
According to his Twitter account, Smith was married with a toddler son. A fan of Steve Jobs, American movies and interacting with Libyans, he posted frequently about being homesick, his students and living in Benghazi. On Nov. 30, he posted, “It’s official: I miss my wife.” On Nov. 16, he posted a photo from his wedding, saying: “16 years with my besty.”