WASHINGTON — The U.S. military seized a Libyan extremist accused in the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sunday as the terror group he once led was locked in fierce combat with forces loyal to a renegade Libyan general who once lived in the United States.
Knowledgeable officials said the arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala had not been coordinated with forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa 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 Khatalla. The officials spoke on the condition that they not be identified.
At least 57 people were killed and 72 wounded in the Sunday battle between Khattalas Ansar al Shariah and Hifters forces, according to an account of the fighting published by the Libyan Herald, an English-language website based in Tripoli, Libyas capital.
Since the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Khattala had remained a prominent player in Ansar al Shariah. He was part of a delegation 10 days ago that sought to open reconciliation talks with Hifter and his forces, according to the Herald. Those talks failed, the news site reported.
Hifter lived in northern Virginia for more than two decades after he defected from Moammar Gadhafis army in the 1980s. He returned to Libya in 2011 and has remained there since. While his campaign against Ansar al Shariah has been denounced by Libyas government, its received support from key parts of the LIbyan armed forces, including the air force.
U.S. officials declined Tuesday to reveal where precisely Khattala was captured but it was apparently not at his home in the al Laithi district of Benghazi. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said he was arrested near Benghazi and that no civilians had been injured in the action.
All Americans involved in the capture left Libya safely, Kirby said, and Khatalla is on his way to the United States, where he faces criminal charges filed in federal court in Washington. Libyan authorities apparently were not told in advance of the operation and did not take part in Khattalas capture, U.S. officials said. It was not clear whether Libyan authorities had learned that Khattala had been snatched before news broke of his arrest on Tuesday.
Khattalas seizure marks the first time U.S. forces have detained any of the scores of suspects in the September 2012 attacks, which have been the source of congressional investigations and angry recriminations.
Khattala was in U.S. custody in a secure location, Kirby said. A criminal complaint filed last July but unsealed only Tuesday charges him with three crimes, including killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility.
An audience at the TechShop in Pittsburgh, Pa., burst into applause as President Obama veered from his prepared remarks on manufacturing to hail Khattalas capture.
We will find you
Its 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, Obama said at the start of a speech on manufacturing. Thats the message I said the day after it happened and regardless how long it takes, we will find you. I want to make sure everyone around the world hears that message very clearly.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that Khattala might face additional charges and that other attackers might be prosecuted.
Our nations memory is long and our reach is far, Holder said. The arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala represents a significant milestone in our efforts to ensure justice is served for the heinous and cowardly attack on our facilities in Benghazi.
The decision, however, to try Khattala in a civilian court immediately created more controversy over Obamas plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorism suspects. Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, D-Fla., demanded that he be sent to Guantanamo and treated as an enemy combatant.
Rubios statement said intelligence could be best gathered by questioning Khattala at Guantanamo. In order to locate all individuals associated with the attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans, we need intelligence, Rubio said. That intelligence is often obtained through an interrogation process.
But Democrats said Khattalas case would be better dealt with in civilian federal court, which have prosecuted hundreds of terrorist cases successfully.
I always prefer the federal court to a military commission, because a federal court has had a remarkable record of achievement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Commiteee, said. We convicted close to 500 terrorists in federal court, and very few in military commissions.
The Obama administration said there was no possibility that Khatalla would be sent to Guantanamo, which hasnt received a new prisoner since Obama became president.
Let me rule that out from the start, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. The administrations policy is clear on this issue: We have not added a single person to the GTMO population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system.