TRIPOLI, Libya — Unknown assailants shot a former Austin resident to death as he was jogging on Thursday in Benghazi, underlining persistently tenuous security in the eastern Libyan city where the U.S. ambassador was killed last year.
According to Austin Stone Community Church, the teacher was identified as Ronnie Smith of Austin. Smith was a member of the church. The 33-year-old was due to return home for Christmas next week. Smith's wife and young son had recently traveled to the U.S. for the holidays, International School Benghazi's principal Peter Hodge told the network.
A security official said Smith taught chemistry at Benghazi's International School, a Libyan-owned institute that follows an American curriculum.
Smith was a "proud Texas Ex who earned a master's degree in chemistry at The University of Texas at Austin in 2006. He was an enthusiastic and outgoing student," UT said in a statement Thursday.
Austin Stone Community Church sent its congregation news of Smith's passing Thursday afternoon. The email said in part:
He was a brother in Christ and a faithful servant of this church for many years. We are currently grieving his loss, and awaiting the return of our King together. We are grateful that Ronnie is now in the presence of Jesus.
The church is currently ministering to Ronnie’s family by sending people to care for [his wife] and meeting their current needs.
The church went on to ask for prayers for Smith's wife, their son, and the rest of his family.
Fadyah al-Burghathi, spokeswoman for the Al-Galaa hospital, said Smith's body was brought to the hospital on Thursday with gunshot wounds.
No one has claimed responsibility for Smith's killing, but suspicion is likely to fall on Islamic militants active in the city.
A security official, Ibrahim al-Sharaa, said Smith was jogging near the U.S. Consulate, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed by Islamic militants in September 2012.
Smith was one of four people killed in Benghazi and whose bodies were taken to the Al-Galaa hospital on Thursday, showing the dangers of a city that is home to numerous armed groups resisting the central government's authority. The other three killed were military personnel.
Libya's heavily armed militias, with roots in the 2011 war against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, have proliferated since his overthrow. They have since undermined successive transitional governments and parliament.
Libyan security forces clashed in Benghazi last month with Ansar al-Shariah, a hard-line Islamist militia blamed for the consulate attack. Ansar al-Shariah faces a backlash from residents who have marched against it both in Benghazi and, in recent days, in its stronghold in the eastern city of Darna.
Fred Burton, a counterterrorism expert and vice president at Austin-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, says the unstable political situation in Libya will likely make identifying the perpetrators and their motives difficult.
"You have fighting militias. You have a lot of different tribal loyalties that go back to the collapse of the Gaddafi regime," said Burton. "You add the black flag of jihad to the mix and there's a tremendous amount of infighting as to who's actually going to control the country."
"It's one of these kinds of environments that it really is hard for most Americans to try to understand because we have such a degree of stability here in the United States," said Burton. "But this is an area that is no man's land. It is worse than the wild, wild West."
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.