WASHINGTON — Ahmed Abu Khattala had returned home Sunday night after a day of militia skirmishes in Benghazi when U.S. military commandos swarmed his residence south of the waterfront city and took him captive, quickly moving him out of Libya to a U.S. warship.
“He was isolated,” a U.S. official said. “It was pretty clean.”
One of the suspected ringleaders of the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, Mr. Abu Khattala is the first of the alleged perpetrators to be apprehended. He now awaits a transfer to the United States and a federal trial in the District of Columbia.
U.S. officials said the joint Special Operations forces-FBI operation had been planned for months and was approved by President Barack Obama last Friday. The Pentagon said there were no civilian or other casualties, and that all involved U.S. personnel had safely left Libya.
The administration provided few details of the operation itself, where Abu Khattala is currently being held or the timing of his first appearance in court. After news of the capture became public Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama, on a visit to Pennsylvania, said Mr. Abu Khattala “is now being transported back to the United States.” Administration officials said they expected him to appear in court in Washington within days.
Mr. Obama praised the commandos, said by one U.S. official to be Special Operators from the Army’s Delta Force, for “showing incredible courage and precision” in capturing the man who “is alleged to have been one of the masterminds” of the Benghazi attacks. “It’s important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible, and we will bring them to justice,” the president said.
Mr. Abu Khattala’s apprehension was a significant breakthrough for the administration in a case that has dragged on for nearly two years since Mr. Obama promised shortly after the attacks that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.
Response to the capture quickly divided along partisan lines, with Republicans demanding that Mr. Abu Khattala be thoroughly interrogated at sea and then brought to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for a military trial. Democrats argued, along with the administration, that he belongs in criminal court, where convictions against numerous terrorism defendants have been won in recent years.
“The administration’s policy is clear on this issue,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “We have not added a single person to the [Guantanamo] population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists throughout our federal court system.”
Ms. Hayden said Mr. Abu Khattala would be “debriefed for intelligence purposes,” as has been done in similar cases. Somali citizen Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, picked up off the Somalia coast in 2011, was held at sea and interrogated for months before being advised of his rights to silence and to counsel. Once brought to this country, he pleaded guilty in federal court to a range of charges, including providing material support for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Last October, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, was captured in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in a raid by Delta Force operators and the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. Briefly detained at sea until he fell ill and was brought to the United States for treatment, Mr. Ruqai is currently awaiting trial in New York for involvement in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
A three-count criminal complaint filed by the FBI last July and unsealed Tuesday in federal court in the District of Columbia charges Mr. Abu Khattala with “killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving use of a firearm” on Sept. 11-12, 2012, providing and conspiring to “provide material support to terrorists resulting in a death” and possessing and using a firearm during a crime of violence. Conviction on the felony counts could make him eligible for the death penalty or life imprisonment. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said the Justice Department could bring more charges against him.
At least a dozen others are known to have been charged in sealed criminal complaints in connection with the Benghazi attacks, although none of the others has been apprehended.
While the specific timing and location of Mr. Abu Khattala’s initial court appearance in Washington was not immediately known, past cases involving high-profile defendants have been held in the District Court’s high-security courtroom on the fourth floor, equipped with a wall of bullet-resistant glass between the gallery and the well. A U.S. Marshals Service spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about where Mr. Abu Khattala will be detained. High-profile suspects in terrorism cases in the past have been held at the District of Columbia jail.
The State Department designated Mr. 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 Gadhafi. 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 Stevens and State Department information management officer Sean Smith dead. Two CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed early the next day in a mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex, where the attackers moved after overrunning the diplomatic compound.
Believed to be in his 40s, Mr. Abu Khattala was imprisoned for many years for his Islamist views by the Gadhafi regime. After Gadhafi was ousted in 2011 by Libyan fighters aided by U.S. and NATO warplanes and subsequently killed by an angry militia mob, Mr. Abu Khattala helped form Ansar al-Sharia.
Mr. Abu Khattala’s residence is a relatively modest, two-story house in the al-Lathi neighborhood in southern Benghazi, with no armed guards posted outside. One former Islamist fighter close to Ansar al-Sharia said Monday that Mr. Abu Khattala was frequently on the move, had been “unavailable” for weeks and was not answering his phone.
Neighbors in al-Lathi said they had last seen him Sunday night around sunset, when he returned from fighting in Ansar al-Sharia skirmishes with the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Gen. Hifter has declared war against Islamists in eastern Libya and has been carrying out airstrikes against them for weeks.
McClatchy Newspapers, citing “knowledgeable officials,’ reported Tuesday that the arrest of Mr. Abu Khattala had not been coordinated with forces loyal to Gen. Hifter, a longtime Virginia resident who has been conducting a campaign to rid Benghazi of Ansar al Shariah. But the fighting proved to be a distraction that the Americans were able to take advantage of as they executed a long-planned operation to seize Mr. Abu Khatalla. The officials spoke on condition that they not be identified.
At least 57 people were killed and 72 wounded in the Sunday battle between Mr. Abu Khattala’s Ansar al Shariah and Gen. Hifter’s forces, according to an account published by the Libyan Herald, an English-language website.United States military - United States government - Middle East - Latin America and Caribbean - Barack Obama - Africa - District of Columbia - U.S. Department of Defense - U.S. Department of State - Al-Qaida - Eric Holder - Cuba - Caribbean - Muammar Gaddafi - U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation - Libya - North Africa - Libya government - Saxby Chambliss - Bowe Bergdahl - Glen Doherty
McClatchy Newspapers contributed.