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.