TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — An American chemistry teacher was shot to death as he was jogging in Benghazi on Thursday, highlighting persistently tenuous security in the eastern Libyan city where the U.S. ambassador was killed last year.
There were no credible claims of responsibility, but suspicion was likely to fall on Islamic militants active in Benghazi. It came five days after al-Qaida's American spokesman called upon Libyans to attack U.S. interests everywhere as revenge for U.S. special forces snatching an al-Qaida suspect off the streets of Tripoli in October and whisking him out of the country.
The U.S. State Department identified the teacher as Ronald Thomas Smith II. The State Department did not provide Smith's hometown, and it was not possible to immediately confirm a statement from a Libyan official that he was from Texas. The University of Texas in Austin said he graduated from the school in 2006 with a master's degree in chemistry.
Smith, 33, taught chemistry at Benghazi's International School, a Libyan-owned facility that follows a British curriculum.
The Austin, Texas church he attended with his wife, Anita, and their son said Smith had been teaching at the Benghazi school for the last year and a half and that Smith had planned to be home for Christmas.
"Anita and their son had returned to the U.S. and are safe with family. Ronnie, out of a sense of dedication, had stayed in Libya to be with his students through their midterm exams," Daphne Bamburg, the executive pastor of operations at The Austin Stone community church said in an email. "Ronnie's greatest desire was for peace and prosperity in Libya and for the people of Libya to have the joy of knowing God through Christ."
The school posted condolences on its Facebook page. "He was a much loved teacher who supported students in their learning and always had time to help when asked," it said. "Ronnie was a professional who gave his time freely and without question. We do not understand why this has happened and it is extremely difficult for his students and his colleagues to accept."
A family member who answered the door at a home in Warren, Mich., on Thursday said she had no comment and asked an Associated Press reporter to leave the property.
A Libyan security official, Ibrahim al-Sharaa, said Smith was shot while jogging near the compound where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed by Islamic militants in September 2012.
Adel al-Mansouri, the International School's chairman of the board, told the AP by telephone from Benghazi that Smith jogged every day in Benghazi "without fear" and was very popular among the students. He said Smith had been with the school for just over a year.
He said the school, which has 650 pupils ages 4 to 18, had not received any threats because of its Western teachers.
"We have other Western teachers from the United States, Britain and Australia," al-Mansouri said. "If any of them is worried about the security situation and wants to take early home leave for Christmas, we will let them. But most want to stay."
Smith was one of four people killed in Benghazi on Thursday, showing the dangers of a city that is home to numerous armed groups resisting the central government's authority. The three others were military personnel.
Libyan security forces clashed in Benghazi last month with Ansar al-Shariah, a hard-line Islamist militia blamed for the attack on the diplomatic mission that killed the ambassador. Ansar al-Shariah faces a backlash from residents who have marched against it in Benghazi and, in recent days, in its stronghold in the eastern city of Darna.
Libya's heavily armed militias, with roots in the 2011 war against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, have proliferated since his overthrow. They have undermined successive transitional governments and parliament.
With frequent attacks on public figures and security officials, much of the lawlessness is blamed on the groups. But the government also relies on many of them to provide security in the absence of a functioning police force.
In an audio speech posted on militant websites late Saturday, al-Qaida's American spokesman, Adam Gadahn, called the U.S.'s kidnapping of an al-Qaida suspect from Libya in October a crime of piracy and urged Libyans to attack U.S. interests. Gadahn, a former Osama bin Laden spokesman, said the suspect, Abu Anas al-Libi, had no role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa because he had left al-Qaida and formed a new group.
After seizing al-Libi in Tripoli, American special forces detained him on a U.S. warship before bringing him to the U.S. to stand trial.
The United States called on the Libyan government to "thoroughly investigate" Smith's death.
Abdullah Gaair, a former Libyan student of Smith's who now attends Manchester College in England, said he was "an amazing teacher, going out of his way to do what he can to help the students, even the ones who skipped lessons or showed no interest in the subject."
"He believed we were the future," Gaair, an 18-year-old from Benghazi, told the AP in an email. "He said we were the foundation for the essence of this country and that if we were to succeed now, Libya will also succeed. He was and always will be Libya's best friend."
He was active on Twitter, using the handle @ISBchem and calling himself "Libya's best friend." He had humorous exchanges with students and noted "There is one thing Libyans are good at: making foreigners feel like family." His students confirmed his Twitter account.
He frequently commented on the difficult situation in the city and mocking Libyan habits. He also didn't shy from black humor about the rampant militias in the city.
"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?" he tweeted.
Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston. Kim Gamel in Cairo, Mike Householder in Warren, Mich., and Monika Mathur in Washington, D.C., also contributed to this report.