WASHINGTON -- The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in U.S. politics appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom, pleading not guilty Saturday to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by special forces.
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, Ahmed Abu Khattala spoke just two words, both in Arabic. He replied "yes" when asked to swear to tell the truth and "no" when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding.
Mr. Abu Khattala became the most recent foreign terror suspect to be prosecuted in American courts, a forum the Obama administration contends is both fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case was being tried in Washington despite concerns from Republicans in Congress who say he should not be entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system.
A grand jury indictment handed up under seal Thursday and made public Saturday said Mr. Abu Khattala participated in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
That crime is punishable by up to life in prison. The government said it soon would file more charges against Mr. Abu Khattala.
During his initial court appearance, the defendant listened via headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He wore a two-piece black track suit, had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly gray, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back.
He looked impassively at U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Mr. Abu Khattala's court-appointed lawyer, Michele Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Judge Facciola ordered the defendant's continued detention, but the judge did not say where Mr. Abu Khattala would be held.
The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Mr. Abu Khattalah, who now was confined to a detention facility in the capital region.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had been questioning Mr. Abu Khattala aboard a Navy ship that transported him to the United States. He was flown early Saturday by military helicopter from a Navy ship to a National Park Service landing pad in the city's Anacostia neighborhood, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the transfer publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A U.S. official said Mr. Abu Khattala had been advised of his Miranda rights at some point during his trip and continued talking after that. The official wasn't authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The nature of those conversations wasn't immediately clear.
A criminal complaint filed last year and unsealed after Mr. Abu Khattala's capture charged him with terror-related crimes.