By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau
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 Khattala’s Ansar al Shariah and Hifter’s forces, according to an account of the fighting published by the Libyan Herald, an English-language website based in Tripoli, Libya’s 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 Gadhafi’s 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 Libya’s government, it’s 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 Khattala 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 Khattala’s 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.
Khattala’s 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 Barack Obama veered from his prepared remarks on manufacturing to hail Khattala’s capture.
“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,” Obama said at the start of a speech on manufacturing. “That’s 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 nation’s 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 Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorism suspects. Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demanded that he be sent to Guantanamo and treated as an “enemy combatant.”
Rubio’s 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 Khattala’s 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 Committee, 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 hasn’t 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 administration’s 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.”
In a similar case, Abu Anas al Libi, a Libyan al-Qaida operative tied to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, was snatched from outside his home in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, last October. He was kept aboard a U.S. Navy ship for several days before being transferred to New York for prosecution.
The attacks in Benghazi took place on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The first was an assault by as many as 70 men who stormed the U.S. special mission in Benghazi, and set it ablaze, killing Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith. The second began in the wee hours of Sept. 12 at a separate CIA compound about a mile away, where a mortar barrage killed security contractors Tyrone Wood and Glen Doherty.
Khattala’s name emerged as a suspect within hours of the attack. In interviews with journalists, Khattala said he went to the compound site after the attack began but did not lead it. All the while, he boasted that he moved around Benghazi without fear of arrest.
According to two U.S. officials, the raid was the result of months of planning, but few other details were known. In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Kirby declined to say which U.S. force conducted the raid, how long that force was on the ground in Libya, whether U.S. officials had notified the Libyan government before or after the raid, or where Khattala was captured.
The Washington Post, which said it had learned about the capture on Monday but agreed to a request from the White House to delay publishing a story because of security concerns, reported that U.S. Special Operations Forces captured Khattala.
Kirby’s statement said that “on Sunday, June 15, the U.S. military, in cooperation with law enforcement personnel,” captured Khattala. It added, “There were no civilian casualties related to this operation, and all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya.”
The Benghazi attacks became one of the biggest controversies to confront the Obama administration. Republicans have charged that the administration covered up details of what took place when it claimed for nearly a week afterward that the storming of the compound was prompted by a protest over a video that satirized the Prophet Muhammad. That version turned out not to be true, however.
Khattala had remained at large for nearly two years, even after witnesses placed him at the consulate during the assault, directing fighters. A commander in Benghazi’s largest revolutionary brigade, the Libyan Shield, told McClatchy two months after the attack that people were frustrated that Khattala was still allowed to openly operate in Benghazi, boasting about his freedom of movement even as he denied participating in the attack.
“Who is going to arrest him? Who is going to question him? It’s the consequences that we fear,” the commander said. “If we arrest someone, a member of his forces will get him out.”
The commander didn’t want to be named after being publicly identified with helping the Americans recruit members for a counterterrorism unit. Within hours of his name surfacing, he said, extremist groups operating in Benghazi threatened to kill him.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., hailed the capture and called it “long overdue,” noting that Khattala has made himself available to “multiple media outlets” in the 21 months since the deaths of four Americans, including the first U.S. ambassador killed in an attack since 1979.
“I hope that this capture brings us closer to justice and accountability,” Royce said. “We should right now be getting from him as much intelligence as possible.”