U.S. Captures Suspect In Benghazi Attack
After nearly two years, the United States has taken a suspect in the September 11, 2012 attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi into custody:
CAIRO — United States commandos have captured the suspected ringleader of the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the White House and Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
Apprehension of the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, is a major breakthrough in the two-and-a-half-year-old investigation into the attack, which also killed three other Americans. President Obama vowed swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice, but efforts to identity and prosecute the attackers were stymied by the chaos of the event and the broader mayhem in Libya.
Officials briefed on the investigation have said for more than a year that a plan to capture Mr. Abu Khattala was on Mr. Obama’s desk awaiting approval. But the administration held back, in part for fear that an American raid to retrieve him might further destabilize the already tenuous Libyan government. Diplomats also suggested that the United States investigators might have been struggling to produce sufficient witness testimony and other evidence to convict Mr. Abu Khattala of responsibility for the deaths in an American court.
he execution of the raid, which was first reported by The Washington Post, appears to signal that the investigators are confident in their case, and it may also reflect an acceptance that Libya is unlikely to become a stable partner in the pursuit of the culprits any time soon.
Indeed, a renegade general based in Benghazi is currently waging a low-grade military campaign against local Islamist militants like Mr. Abu Khattala, and the United States may have sought to arrest the suspect before the general, Khalifa Heftar, killed him in the fighting there.
The Pentagon announced that Mr. Abu Khattala had been captured on Sunday. “All U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya,” a Pentagon statement said.
Mr. Obama issued a statement moments later. “Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans,” Mr. Obama said.
The seizure of Mr. Abu Khattala by the American team, Mr. Obama said, “is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel. Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.”
A United States law enforcement official said the military-law enforcement team — composed of American commandos and F.B.I. agents — captured Mr. Abu Khattala somewhere on the outskirts of Benghazi. No shots were fired, no civilians were hurt and no one else was taken into custody, the official said, in what was apparently a surprise raid.
The Washington Post has further details on the raid that led to the suspect’s capture:
Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity about the still-secret operation, would not say where Abu Khattala was being held. They said he was “en route” to the United States but would not say when he was expected to arrive.
Several terrorist suspects abducted overseas have been held aboard U.S. naval ships at sea while being interrogated, after which they were turned over to FBI “clean teams” to question them for trial without endangering the admissibility of evidence.
The State Department designated Abu Khattala a terrorist in January, calling him a “senior leader” of the Benghazi branch of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia, a group that arose after the 2011 fall of the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi.
Ansar al-Sharia was also designated a terrorist organization and held specifically responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and State Department security official Sean Smith dead.
Two CIA contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed early the next day in a mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex where the attackers moved after overtaking the diplomatic compound.
Officials who confirmed Abu Khattala’s capture declined to comment on whether others were apprehended with him, or to describe the specific military or law enforcement units that were involved. Last October, commandos from the Army’s elite Delta Force, along with members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, carried out a similar raid in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and abducted Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai,who is accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, is currently awaiting trial in New York.
A plan to grab Abu Khattala days after Ruqai’s capture was postponed because of violent uprisings against the Libyan government, which had approved the abductions. Asked whether Libya had approved the Sunday abduction, a U.S. official said: “I am not going to get into the specifics of our diplomatic discussions, but to be clear: This was a unilateral U.S. operation.”
“We have made clear to successive Libyan governments our intention to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack on our facilities in Benghazi,” the official said. “So it should come as no surprise to the Libyan government that we would take advantage of an opportunity to bring Abu Khattala to face justice.”
Zack Beauchamp at Vox has a good explainer of who Abu Kattalah is, and the efforts that we’ve been making for more than a year to bring him to justice.
Along with the announcement of the arrest, Federal officials also unsealed a Criminal Complaint that had been filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia charging Abu Khattala with what can generically be called murder, terrorism, and conspiracy along with related firearms charges. The affidavit supporting the Complaint doesn’t appear to have been made public as yet, although that’s not surprising since it would likely contain information that the government would prefer to keep sealed for the time being if it could lead to the capture of other suspects. In any case, the selection of the District as the venue is somewhat interesting. In the past, cases such as this have been tried in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, with a handful of terrorism-related cases also having been tried in New York City. This will, I believe, be the first significant terrorism trial in the District of Columbia, which at the very least will make the security issues interesting given the Courthouse’s location.
As with all things Benghazi, this will no doubt have political reverberations. With Hillary Clinton out on her book tour, which will include appearances on CNN and Fox this week, Benghazi is an issue that has been back in the news to begin with, and the recent selection of the House Select Committee and revelations about undisclosed White House emails have brought it back into the news as well. Additionally, several polls have shown that the issue has resonated with the public, and is having an impact on Clinton’s own favorability ratings. To some degree, one thinks that this news will constitute some degree of push back against the GOP’s emphasis on the issue. Of course, we can also expect conservatives to push back as well, and that started within less than an hour of the announcement of Abu Kattalah’s capture when Rush Limbaugh suggested there was an “amazing coincidence” that it happened on the same day as Clinton’s scheduled Fox News appearance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar suggestions from others on the right.
On the whole, though, Abu Kattalah’s capture is good news that will hopefully lead to the capture of others involved in the attack that killed an American Ambassador and three others. Additionally, it could possibly also lead to some definitive evidence regarding many of the questions surrounding the attack itself, such as the extent to which it was pre-planned or, as the Administration has long suggested, a largely spontaneous attack that took advantage of protests in the wider Arab world. Even if we don’t get any intelligence out of the attack, though, we’ll be bringing the man who apparently led the attack to justice, and that is long overdue.
Photo via New York Times