An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012. The alleged ringleader in the attack has been captured by involving Special Operations forces. (AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Special Operations forces captured one of the suspected ringleaders of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in a secret raid in Libya over the weekend, the first time one of the accused perpetrators of the 2012 assault has been apprehended, according to U.S. officials.
The officials said Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured near Benghazi by American troops, working alongside the FBI, following months of planning, and was now in U.S. custody “in a secure location outside Libya.” The officials said there were no casualties in the operation, and that all U.S. personnel involved have safely left Libya.
Khattala’s apprehension is a major victory for the Obama administration, which has been criticized for having failed so far to bring those responsible for the Benghazi attacks to justice.
One jubilant official called Khattala’s capture “a reminder that when the United States says it’s going to hold someone accountable and he will face justice, this is what we mean.”
Sept. 11, 2012: The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a terrorist attack.Reuters
The Washington Post learned about the capture Monday but agreed to a request from the White House to delay publication of a story because of security concerns.
Last year, the U.S. Attorney in the District filed charges against Khattala and at least a dozen others in connection with the Benghazi attacks. None besides Khattala — who is expected to be arraigned in Washington — has been apprehended.
Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity about the still-secret operation, would not say where Khattala was being held. They said he was “en route” to the United States, but would not say when he was expected to arrive.
Several terrorist suspects abducted overseas have been held aboard U.S. naval ships at sea while being interrogated, after which they were turned over to FBI “clean teams” to question them for trial without endangering the admissibility of evidence.
The State Department designated 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 2010 fall of the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi.
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 U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and State Department security official Sean Smith dead.
Two CIA contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed in a mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex where the attackers moved after overtaking the diplomatic compound.
Officials who confirmed Khattala’s capture declined to comment on whether others were apprehended with him, or to describe the specific military or law enforcement units that were involved. Last October, commandos from the Army’s elite Delta Force, along with members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, carried out a similar raid in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and abducted Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai,who is accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa.
Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, is currently awaiting trial in New York.
A plan to grab Khattala days after Ruqai’s capture was postponed because of violent uprisings against the Libyan government, which had approved the abductions. Asked whether Libya had approved the Sunday abduction, a U.S. official said: “I am not going to get into the specifics of our diplomatic discussions, but to be clear: This was a unilateral U.S. operation.”
“We have made clear to successive Libyan governments our intention to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack on our facilities in Benghazi,” the official said. “So it should come as no surprise to the Libyan government that we would take advantage of an opportunity to bring Abu Khatalla to face justice.”
Following the October raid, the FBI feared it had missed its best opportunity to arrest Khattala.
Shortly after the Benghazi attacks, FBI agents in New York, which has territorial responsibility for Africa, began working with federal prosecutors there, although the case was subsequently moved without explanation to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District.
Failure to make arrests in the Benghazi case was seen as an enormous frustration for the FBI, and a subject of sharp criticism from lawmakers. Within weeks of the attacks, and sporadically thereafter, Khattala was interviewed by American reporters in the open in Benghazi, where he said he did not participate in the initial assault on the Benghazi compound but came on the scene as it was ending.
In a June 11 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, FBI Director James Comey testified: “I take the Benghazi matter very, very seriously. It is one that I am very close to—briefed on a regular basis. One we are putting a lot of work into and that we’ve made progress on.”
“One thing you’ve got to know about the FBI, we never give up,” Comey said. “So sometimes things take longer than we’d like them to, but they never go into an inactive bin.”
Believed to be in his 40s, Khattala was imprisoned for many years by the Gaddafi regime for his Islamic views.
The FBI believes other groups were also involved in the Benghazi attacks and is pursuing criminal charges against several individuals, including Abu Sufian bin Qumu, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in the Libyan city of Darnah. Qumu has also been designated a terrorist by the State Department, as has his group.
In 2007, Qumu was released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and sent to Libya, where he was detained. Gaddafi’s government released him in 2008.
The Benghazi attacks and their aftermath have been the subject of ongoing controversy. A volatile political issue, Benghazi has already influenced initial skirmishing over the 2016 presidential election, particularly for Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Obama’s secretary of state at the time of the attacks.
Republicans have charged the White House with failing to secure the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, attempting to cover up what actually occurred on the night of the attacks, and mishandling the subsequent investigation. After numerous hearings and an official State Department review, a select committee has been set up in the House of Representatives to investigate further.