Libyan Militia Leader Pleads Not Guilty in Benghazi Attack

Ahmed Abu Khatallah is charged with with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists resulting in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

David Ingram, Jonathan Ernst and Kevin Fogarty
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group in this September 11, 2012 file photo.
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group in this September 11, 2012 file photo.Credit: Reuters
David Ingram, Jonathan Ernst and Kevin Fogarty

REUTERS - A Libyan militia leader pleaded not guilty in a U.S. federal court on Saturday to a terrorism charge in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans.

Ahmed Abu Khatallah was transferred to the U.S. District Court in Washington on Saturday morning from a Navy warship where he had been held since his June 15 capture by U.S. special operations forces in Libya.

He was charged at an afternoon hearing with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.

The Sept. 11, 2012, attack triggered a political firestorm for President Barack Obama, with Republicans accusing his administration of misrepresenting the circumstances and of lax protection for diplomats.

The charge against Khatallah includes malicious damage to and destruction of U.S. property by fires and explosives. It carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, the Justice Department said. The department said it intended to file additional charges shortly.

Khatallah was not shackled when he appeared before Magistrate Judge John Facciola and kept his hands behind him as he gave answers through an interpreter. He wore a dark hoodie and black trousers and had long gray hair and a gray beard.

"You conspired, that is to say, you agreed with other people, to provide material support and resources to terrorists, including yourself, knowing that that support and those resources would be used in killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of firearms and dangerous weapons," Facciola told the defendant.

The judge appointed a public defender and Khatallah was taken out of the courthouse in a motorcade after the 10-minute hearing. U.S. officials did not say where he would be held.

Federal charges filed against him in July 2013 but kept under court seal until this month also included killing a person on U.S. property and a firearms violation.

There was heightened security around the federal courthouse building, which is blocks from the U.S. Capitol and across the street from the National Gallery of Art, prime tourist destinations in Washington. Two or three armed U.S. marshals patrolled the perimeter of the building.

Military to civilian custody

Khatallah was taken aboard the USS New York, an amphibious transport ship, after his seizure in a raid on the outskirts of Benghazi. At the time of Khatallah's capture, a U.S. official said he was expected to be questioned by an interrogation team at sea. The unit seeks information from suspects that might prevent future attacks.

Khatallah was in U.S. military custody for nearly two weeks before being transferred into the American civilian court system. He was transferred to U.S. soil by helicopter, a U.S. official said.

"Now that Ahmed Abu Khatallah has arrived in the United States, he will face the full weight of our justice system," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement. "We will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant's alleged role in the attack that killed four brave Americans in Benghazi."

Khatallah denied in a Reuters interview in October 2012 that he was a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group Washington accuses of carrying out the assault on the consulate.

His capture was a victory for Obama, who has been accused by Republicans of playing down the role of Al-Qaida in the Benghazi attacks for political reasons and of being slow to deliver on promises of justice.

Republicans said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to take steps to ensure the safety of American diplomatic personnel, an issue that is still resonating as Clinton considers running for U.S. president in 2016.

Khatallah's capture also led to Republican criticism, with some lawmakers calling for him to be taken to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for military prosecution. Obama has sought to close down the Guantanamo prison and his policy has been to try terrorism suspects caught abroad in the U.S. justice system.

Most terrorism suspects tried in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been prosecuted at federal courts in New York and Alexandria, Virginia.

FBI Director James Comey said capturing Khatallah and bringing him to the United States was a big step forward in the Benghazi investigation, but the FBI's work was not over. "This case remains one of our top priorities and we will continue to pursue all others who participated in this brazen attack on our citizens and our country," Comey said.

An artist's rendering shows Judge John Facciola, swearing in the defendant, Libyan militant Ahmed Abu Khatallah, at the federal U.S. District Court in Washington, Saturday, June 28, 2014.Credit: AP

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

SUBSCRIBE
Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?

Relatives mourn during the funeral of four teenage Palestinians from the Nijm family killed by an errant rocket in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7.

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed

AIPAC

AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op