The Suspected Ringleader of the Benghazi Attacks Is in U.S. Custody

Ahmed Abu Khattala was taken by American troops near Benghazi this weekend.

This photo taken on September 11, 2012 shows a vehicle and surrounding buildings smoldering after they were set on fire inside the US mission compound in Benghazi.
National Journal
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Emma Roller and Matt Berman
June 17, 2014, 7:40 a.m.

One of the sus­pec­ted ar­chi­tects of the Septem­ber 2012 at­tack on the U.S. Con­su­late in Benghazi was cap­tured over the week­end by U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions. The man, Ahmed Abu Khat­tala, was taken by Amer­ic­an troops near Benghazi. The Wash­ing­ton Post first re­por­ted the raid Tues­day morn­ing.

Pentagon Press Sec­ret­ary Rear Adm. John Kirby con­firmed the cap­ture in a state­ment earli­er on Tues­day, call­ing Khat­tala “a key fig­ure in the at­tacks.” Kirby said that Khat­tala is “in a se­cure loc­a­tion out­side of Libya,” that there were no ci­vil­ian caus­al­it­ies in the op­er­a­tion, and that all U.S. per­son­nel in­volved have “safely de­par­ted Libya.”

The op­er­a­tion took months of plan­ning and was con­duc­ted uni­lat­er­ally by the United States, an of­fi­cial told The Post. The of­fi­cial said that the cap­ture “should come as no sur­prise to the Liby­an gov­ern­ment,” as the U.S. has “made clear to suc­cess­ive Liby­an gov­ern­ments our in­ten­tion to bring to justice the per­pet­rat­ors of the at­tack on our fa­cil­it­ies in Benghazi.”

Khat­tala, a mi­li­tia lead­er, was charged with murder last year by fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies in con­nec­tion with the at­tacks. The State De­part­ment des­ig­nated him a ter­ror­ist in Janu­ary, la­beling him as a seni­or lead­er of An­sar al-Shari’a in Benghazi.

On Tues­day af­ter­noon, Pres­id­ent Obama said the cap­ture was ne­ces­sary to main­tain the trust of U.S. dip­lo­mats. “My duty as com­mand­er in chief is to keep the Amer­ic­an people safe. There are a lot of dangers out there and a lot of chal­lenges,” he said. “Our dip­lo­mats serve with in­cred­ible cour­age and val­or in some very dif­fi­cult situ­ations. They need to know that this coun­try has their back, and will al­ways go after any­body who goes after us.”

In an earli­er state­ment, Obama said he “re­cently au­thor­ized” the op­er­a­tion, and said, “The fact that he is now in U.S. cus­tody is a test­a­ment to the painstak­ing ef­forts of our mil­it­ary, law en­force­ment, and in­tel­li­gence per­son­nel.”

In an Oc­to­ber 2012 in­ter­view with The New York Times, Khat­tala said that he was not part of the vi­ol­ence at the Amer­ic­an com­pound, des­pite wit­ness re­ports sug­gest­ing that he was help­ing to lead the fight. Khat­tala is ex­pec­ted to be ar­raigned in Wash­ing­ton, ac­cord­ing to The Post.

“Khatal­l­ah cur­rently faces crim­in­al charges on three counts, and we re­tain the op­tion of adding ad­di­tion­al charges in the com­ing days,” At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er said in a state­ment. “Even as we be­gin the pro­cess of put­ting Khatal­l­ah on tri­al and seek­ing his con­vic­tion be­fore a jury, our in­vest­ig­a­tion will re­main on­go­ing as we work to identi­fy and ar­rest any co-con­spir­at­ors.”

In a state­ment, House Speak­er John Boehner called the cap­ture “ob­vi­ously good news,” and ad­ded that he wants to hear more de­tails about the raid. “I ex­pect the ad­min­is­tra­tion to give our mil­it­ary pro­fes­sion­als time to prop­erly gath­er any use­ful in­tel­li­gence he has.”

Con­ser­vat­ives have long cri­ti­cized the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for fail­ing to bring the per­pet­rat­ors of the 2012 at­tack to justice. At an event hos­ted by the Her­it­age Found­a­tion on Monday, one pan­el­ist said the Benghazi cul­prits were prob­ably “sip­ping frappes with journ­al­ists in juice bars.” A month after the at­tack, Khat­tala was do­ing just that.

As Mi­chael Cal­der­one wrote for The Huff­ing­ton Post late last year, it’s not ex­actly as though Khat­tala has been in ex­treme hid­ing. Mul­tiple journ­al­ists have con­duc­ted sit-down in­ter­views with him in the years since the at­tack, and he re­portedly did not ap­pear con­cerned about a cap­ture. Why was that? “An­oth­er U.S. raid would cause things to go out of con­trol,” the head of Libya’s spe­cial forces told The Times of Lon­don last year. So far at least, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The op­er­a­tion was not known to the vast ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of Con­gress; many of them first learned of the raid from news re­ports on their cell phones dur­ing a vote on Tues­day morn­ing. Even Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he was un­aware of the raid un­til a re­port­er asked him about it, more than an hour after the news broke.

Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis., who serves on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, said Tues­day that he first learned of the raid from news re­ports on his cell phone dur­ing the Tues­day morn­ing vote. “This ad­min­is­tra­tion does not no­ti­fy many — cer­tainly not this mem­ber, maybe some mem­bers of the In­tel­li­gence [Com­mit­tee]” he said. Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said that the pan­el had a heads-up about the raid a few days ago.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans were quick to make sure the raid doesn’t turn in­to a big polit­ic­al vic­tory for the White House. Sen. James In­hofe, the rank­ing mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, said he “an­ti­cip­ated” that the raid would hap­pen but sug­ges­ted that the im­port­ance of the cap­ture is be­ing blown out of pro­por­tion. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion would like to say, all right, we ap­pre­hen­ded someone, isn’t that great, to de­flect the at­ten­tion away from the real Benghazi prob­lem — that is, the pres­id­ent and, through Rice and the rest of them, knew full well that it was all a ter­ror­ist at­tack, and they tried to cov­er it up and got caught in a lie.”

“The big deal here,” In­hofe said, “is we have a pres­id­ent who lied to the Amer­ic­an people.”

But John­son said he’s pleased with the news. “This is good news. I’m glad that we fi­nally — you know, someone is at least be­ing brought to justice on Benghazi…. We should bring all those in­di­vidu­als to justice first. But also we need to hold ac­count­able those in­di­vidu­als at the State De­part­ment that al­lowed this to hap­pen,” he said.

John­son was taken aback by news that Khat­tala is ex­pec­ted to be ar­raigned in Wash­ing­ton, call­ing it a “really stu­pid policy.”

The way to get in­form­a­tion from a ter­ror­ist like Khat­tala, he said, is to de­tain and in­ter­rog­ate them. That’s what has worked at Guantanamo, John­son said. “Not through tor­ture, not through ab­us­ive tech­niques,” he said. “You hold people there, you ques­tion them re­lent­lessly, you gain their trust over time and they start giv­ing up in­form­a­tion…. That’s how we ac­tu­ally get the in­form­a­tion. So you’re not go­ing to get the in­tel­li­gence we need by ques­tion­ing someone for 12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, and then ar­raign­ing them and giv­ing them Mir­anda rights. They’ll shut up.”

“It would be be biggest mis­take for the ages to read this guy his Mir­anda rights,” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham said. “We should have some qual­ity time with this guy. Weeks and months — don’t tor­ture him, but have some qual­ity time with him.”

Cham­b­liss said he knows where Khat­tala is be­ing held, and that he is cur­rently be­ing in­ter­rog­ated, but the sen­at­or wouldn’t di­vulge the loc­a­tion or when Khat­tala is ex­pec­ted to be brought in­to the U.S. The Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee vice chair­man said he is hope­ful that U.S. forces will gain valu­able in­tel­li­gence from Khat­tala in the in­ter­im.

On Sept. 11, 2012, ter­ror­ists at­tacked the U.S. Con­su­late in Benghazi, Libya, and set it aflame. Two died, in­clud­ing Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens. Later, two in­tel­li­gence op­er­at­ives were killed in an at­tack on a nearby CIA an­nex.

“Even as we wel­come the suc­cess of this op­er­a­tion,” Obama said in his first Tues­day state­ment, “we also pause to re­mem­ber the four Amer­ic­ans who gave their lives in Benghazi rep­res­ent­ing their coun­try: Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyr­one Woods, and Glen Do­herty. As I said shortly after the at­tack, they ex­em­pli­fied the val­ues that we stand for as a na­tion, in­clud­ing a com­mit­ment to free­dom and justice.”

This isn’t the end of U.S. op­er­a­tions here, as far as the White House is con­cerned. “We will con­tin­ue our ef­forts to bring to justice those who were re­spons­ible for the Benghazi at­tacks,” Obama said.

This story will be up­dated as more comes in.

Contributions by Elahe Izad and Sarah Mimms
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