WASHINGTON — The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that U.S. Special Forces captured a top Libyan suspect in the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens along with three other Americans.
It was the first time that U.S. forces have detained any of the scores of suspects in the attacks, which have been the source of congressional investigations and angry recriminations.
The suspect, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, was in “U.S. custody in a secure location,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Read Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
Khattalah is likely to face prosecution in Washington, D.C., where a previously undisclosed criminal complaint charged him in July 2013 with three criminal counts, including “killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that Khattalah could 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 Khatallah 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 Khatallah in a civilian court is likely to create more controversy over President Barack Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorist suspects. Sen. Lindsey Graham immediately reacted to the capture with a Twitter comment demanding that Khatallah be sent to Guantanamo.
“Ahmed Abu Khattala should be held at Guantanamo as a potential enemy combatant,” Khattalah said.
It was clear, however, that that was not the administration’s plan. No terrorist suspect has been sent to Guantanamo since 2008, including Abu Anas al Libi, a Libyan al Qaida operative who was snatched from outside his home in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in October. Al Libi, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai, was kept aboard a U.S. navy ship for several days before being transferred to New York for prosecution.
Obama hailed the capture in a statement. “With this operation, the United States has once again demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans,” he said.
Few details of Khattalah’s capture were revealed. Pentagon spokesman Kirby’s statement said that “on Sunday, June 15, the U.S. military, in cooperation with law enforcement personnel” captured Khatallah. He added, “There were no civilian casualties related to this operation, and all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya.”
Khatallah became the most well known of the roughly 70 attackers who stormed the U.S. Special Mission and set it ablaze after he brazenly bragged about his involvement to news outlets, saying he moved without fear in Benghazi. He told journalists that the site but did not lead the attack.
In the months after the attack, much of eastern Libya fell to Ansar al Shariah, the group suspected of coordinating the attack and of which Khatallah was believed to be a member. The group’s grip of much of Libya made it out of reach for central government officials based in the capital, Tripoli, in the west. Because of that, Libyan security forces often said that they could not arrest Khatallah without fear of arrest or assassination by his supporters and members of Ansar al Shariah.
That only left U.S. forces to capture him. In the years since the attack, U.S. officials said they struggled to go after him, knowing it could disrupt Libya’s fragile security situation. In addition, Libyan officials could provide no security for U.S. forces who entered.
The attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Bengahzi and a subsequent attack on the CIA station in that city became one of the biggest controversies to confront the Obama administration. Republicans have charged the administration covered up details of the attack when it claimed for nearly a week afterward that the storming on the compound was prompted by a protest, which turned out not to be true.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., hailed the capture but called it “long overdue,” noting that Khatallah has made himself available to “multiple media outlets in the 19 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.”
Aboard Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called it an “important development” and said it reflects the administration’s commitment that it would “go to any length” to find and bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.
Khattala’s capture, he said, “is not the end of that effort, but it marks an important milestone.”
Khattala remained at large for nearly two years, even after witnesses soon after the attacks placed him at the consulate during the attack, directing fighters. A commander in Benghazi’s largest revolutionary brigade, the Libyan Shield, told McClatchy just two months after the attack that people were frustrated that Khattala is 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 Washington Post, which said it learned about the capture Monday but agreed to a request from the White House to delay publication of a story because of security concerns, reported that U.S. Special Operations forces captured Khattala.