BENGHAZI, Libya -- Just days after President Barack Obama vowed to hunt down and bring to justice those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound here, Ahmed Abu Khattala -- one of those considered a ringleader -- spent two leisurely hours Thursday evening at a luxury hotel full of journalists, relaxed in a red fez and sandals, sipping mango juice on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean and scoffing at threats coming from both the U.S. and Libyan governments.
Libya's fledgling national army was a "national chicken," Mr. Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission attackers, he chuckled at Libyan authorities' weakness. And he accused U.S. leaders of "playing with the emotions of the American people" and "using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections."
Mr. Abu Khattala's defiance -- no authority has even questioned him about the attack, he said, and he has no plans to go into hiding -- offered insight into the shadowy landscape of the self-formed militias that have come to constitute the only source of social order in Libya since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
A few, such as the militia group Ansar al-Shariah linked to Mr. Abu Khattala that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya.
But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other brigades thought to be more accepting of the West, which have so far declined to take any action against Benghazi attack suspects.
Although Mr. Abu Khattala said he was not an al-Qaida member, he declared that he would be proud to be associated with al-Qaida's puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said the United States had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?" he asked. "Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?"
Owing in part to the inability of either the Libyans or the Americans to mount a serious investigation, U.S. dissections of the diplomatic mission assault in Benghazi have become muddled in a political debate over the attackers' identities and motivations.
Some Republicans have charged that the Obama administration initially sought to obscure a possible al-Qaida connection to protect its claim to have brought the group to its knees.
Mr. Abu Khattala, 41, added his own new spin. Contradicting accounts of many witnesses and the most recent Obama administration account, he contended that the attack had grown out of a peaceful protest against a U.S.-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.
He also said guards inside the compound -- Libyan or American, he was not sure -- had shot first at the demonstrators, provoking them. And he asserted, without providing evidence, that the attackers had found weapons inside the U.S. compound, including explosives and guns mounted with silencers.
Although Mr. Abu Khattala is being scrutinized by the Libyan and U.S. governments for his role, according to officials, and has been described by witnesses as an active participant, he insisted in the interview that he had played no active role in the assault, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans.world