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What’s next for Libya suspect, on ship and beyond?

  • Associated Press
  • Published Wednesday, June 18, 2014, at 10:33 p.m.

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— The U.S. military got its man, and has handed him over to the Justice Department. What’s next for Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Libyan militant accused of being a mastermind of the 2012 Benghazi attacks? What’s happening on the ship where he’s being held? Where is he headed? What does he know? Some questions, answers – and unknowns:

Where is Abu Khattala and what’s happening to him?

He’s aboard the USS New York, a Navy amphibious transport dock ship that is moving westward from the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of the United States, according to a U.S. official. He’s expected to arrive in the U.S. “in the coming days,” according to the National Security Council. Obama administration officials have refused to publicly discuss whether Abu Khattala is being questioned en route, except to say that they always seek to elicit actionable intelligence from terror suspects in custody. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that Abu Khattala already was being interrogated.

What are the ground rules for questioning him?

In several similar past cases, the Obama administration used a team made up of FBI, CIA and Defense Department personnel known as the High Value Interrogation Group. The group is bound by the rules of the Army Field Manual, which requires that prisoners be treated humanely. When he took office in 2009, President Obama ended a CIA detention and interrogation program for terror suspects that used techniques that many believe amounted to torture. Khattala is at least the fourth case in which the Obama administration has captured a terror suspect overseas and interrogated him for intelligence purposes before bringing him to federal court to face charges.

What were the other three known cases?

The first was Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a commander in Somalia’s al-Qaida affiliate who was seized in April 2011 and interrogated for two months on a Navy ship without being read his rights or offered a lawyer. He later pleaded guilty and began cooperating with authorities.

The second was Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was arrested in Jordan in March 2013 and turned over to U.S. agents. After being read his “Miranda” rights, Abu Ghaith cooperated with FBI agents during a flight to New York, according to court testimony. A jury convicted him in March on charges of conspiring to kill Americans. It is unclear whether the interrogation group questioned him during a 33-day stretch in Turkish custody before he was sent to Jordan.

Neither man has been sentenced yet.

In the third case, Abu Anas al-Libi, accused in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, was captured by Army Delta Force operators in Tripoli in October 2013 with the assistance of the FBI and CIA. He was held on the USS San Antonio before being brought to New York, where he has pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges and is awaiting trial.

What kind of information are investigators looking to get from Abu Khattala?

They'll no doubt press for information about the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. They'll also want to know about any of his militant associates in Libya. David Deitch, a former Justice Department counterterrorism prosecutor, said any information Abu Khattala provides about militant plans might be almost immediately outdated as fellow militia members scramble to change strategy now that their alleged senior leader is in custody. “Let’s say they were planning to attack a certain location the next day or the next week. Maybe they change their plans because of the concern that the person who was captured may have given them away. The longer he’s in custody, the less current his information is.”

Has Abu Khattala been told about his Miranda rights to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination?

The Justice Department isn’t saying. But there is a provision that allows for questioning suspects before they are advised of their rights when public safety may be threatened. The Obama administration has informed the U.N. Security Council that Abu Khattala was captured because investigators determined that he planned further attacks against Americans. Federal agents routinely try to glean as much immediate information as possible from a suspect in custody.

What are the charges against Abu Khattala?

So far, he faces three criminal counts: Killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility and conspiring to do so; providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists that resulted in death; and discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence. Attorney General Eric Holder says there could be additional charges in coming days.

What’s the track record for recent trials of terror suspects in U.S. courts?

The government has used the federal courts to successfully try and convict hundreds of terrorists since the attacks of September 2001, including some pretty big fish. Those include Times Square bomb plotter Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The most recent high-profile victory was the conviction of Abu Ghaith.

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