BENGHAZI, Libya — Unidentified men gunned down an American chemistry teacher here on Thursday morning as he jogged outside his home, according to Libyan security officials and the director of the teacher’s school.
Friends identified the teacher as Ronnie Smith, 33, of Austin, Tex. Libyan security officials said they had yet to determine a motive for the killing, which came during a surge of assassinations and armed clashes in Benghazi.
Mr. Smith was one of the dwindling number of Western citizens still working in Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011 and now a symbol of Libya’s growing anarchy. Over the last two years, a string of extremist attacks on diplomats and other foreigners, most notably the September 2012 killing of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, has deepened the city’s isolation.
Assassinations of security officers or former Qaddafi officials are reported almost daily, and lawless militias, including some linked to Muslim extremists, test the government’s control. Last week, at least nine people were killed as a militia linked to the killing of Mr. Stevens, Ansar al-Shariah, battled a local military unit. On Thursday, at least three security officials were killed in Benghazi.
Despite the danger, Mr. Smith, who had been in Benghazi for more than a year, “never thought for a moment he would be targeted,” said Adel Mansouri, the director of the International School in Benghazi, where Mr. Smith taught chemistry to secondary school students.
After earning a master’s degree in the subject from the University of Texas, Austin, in 2006, Mr. Smith served for a time on the staff of the Austin Stone Community Church, as a teaching pastor and a deacon. He moved to Libya with his wife, Anita, and their young son to continue teaching and “to be a blessing to the Libyan people,” Dave Barrett, a pastor at the church, said in a statement. Mr. Smith’s wife and child were in Texas at the time of the attack, Mr. Barrett said.
A man reached by telephone in Michigan who identified himself as Mr. Smith’s brother-in-law declined to comment on his death. “If you could give us a couple of days, that would be great,” said the man, who identified himself only as Jason. “We just found out about an hour ago.”
After joining the English-language International School, Mr. Smith quickly became its most popular instructor, Mr. Mansouri said.
One of his students, an 18-year-old woman who did not want to be identified, said Libya’s violence had left the students “in a state of depression.” Mr. Smith, she said, was “like a light.”
“He was very supportive to us,” she said in a telephone interview. “He helped me with my university applications. After the revolution, most of us lost hope and he encouraged us.”
When he arrived, he asked what the students did for fun and how they communicated. They did not spend much time outside because of the violence, she said, so they used Twitter. He would join them, she said, often joking as a way to inspire and motivate them.
Mr. Smith’s Twitter feed amounted to a diary of his life in Benghazi. He called himself “Libya’s best friend.”
Several entries voiced frustration with the city and its residents. At other times, he praised the place. “There is one thing Libyans are good at: making foreigners feel like family,” he wrote on Oct. 20.
He also poked fun at the militants. On Oct. 24, he wrote: “Where’s Ansar al-Sharia when you need them? Someone make a call and tell them boys and girls making out here.”
On Nov. 25, the day members of Ansar al-Shariah were driven from their base in Benghazi, Mr. Smith wrote, “More like Ansar Al-see ya!”
On Thursday morning, Mr. Mansouri said, he was called to identify the teacher’s body, which was lying outside his house in an upscale neighborhood near the American diplomatic compound where Mr. Stevens was killed.
The principal called an emergency meeting in the assembly hall at the school, where the students were in the middle of midterm examinations, the 18-year-old student said. At the news of Mr. Smith’s death, the room filled with screams and students collapsed.
Mr. Mansouri said Mr. Smith had told him that he planned to stay in Libya for many years. “He felt very safe,” Mr. Mansouri said. “Is this a robbery, or terrorism? We just don’t know.”
Suliman Ali Zway reported from Benghazi, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo. Jennifer Preston contributed reporting from New York, and Manny Fernandez from Houston.