Courts & Crime

Alleged leader of Benghazi attack faces 10 new death-penalty counts

A federal grand jury on Tuesday returned murder charges that strengthen prospects of a death penalty against an alleged Libyan terrorist leader accused of spearheading the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to the North African nation.

Besides Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, three other government personnel died in the attack that night and the following morning on a U.S. diplomatic mission and a separate federal facility in Benghazi, known as the annex.

In a superseding indictment, the grand jury in the District of Columbia accused Ahmed Abu Khatallah of 17 new charges, 10 carrying a possible death penalty. Khatallah, 43, was arrested on June 17, leading to the unsealing of a three-count criminal case that had been filed against him on July 15, 2014.

“These additional charges reflect Ahmed Abu Khatallah’s integral role in the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, which led to the deaths of four brave Americans,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “We will never relent in pursuing justice against those who commit heinous acts of terrorism against the United States.”

Considerable confusion has surrounded the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, now the subject of a special congressional investigating committee. Administration officials initially portrayed it as an angry, but spontaneous demonstration that got out of control.

Federal prosecutors now allege it was premeditated.

The superseding indictment alleges that Khatallah was the commander of Ubaydah Bin Jarrah, an Islamist extremist militia in Benghazi, that hoped to establish harsh Sharia law in Libya. In 2011, that group merged with Ansar al-Sharia, another Islamist extremist group operating in Libya with the same goal, it says. Khatallah became a Benghazi leader of the merged group, the indictment says.

It charges that he conspired with others to attack the facilities, kill U.S. citizens, destroy buildings and other property and plunder materials, including documents, maps and computers containing sensitive information.

The lead charge in the original case accused Khatallah of conspiring to use a dangerous weapon to kill a person in an attack on a federal facility – a charge that could be punishable by a death sentence.

The new charges that carry death sentences include: one count of murder of an internationally protected person; three counts of murder of an officer and employee of the United States; four counts of killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of a firearm and a dangerous weapon, and two counts of maliciously damaging and destroying U.S. property by means of fire and an explosive causing death.

Khatallah pleaded guilty to the initial charges. He is due to appear for arraignment before U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper on Oct. 20.