Hiding in plain sight: Captured Benghazi suspect an enigma

Story highlights

  • Ahmed Abu Khatallah denied to CNN last year that he led the Benghazi attack
  • He was imprisoned under Moammar Gadhafi, then formed an Islamist militia
  • Don't fear al Qaeda, he told CNN's Arwa Damon
  • He is being brought to the United States to face charges

Ahmed Abu Khatallah has been an enigma since his name first emerged as a possible leader of the Benghazi terrorist attack that killed four Americans.

He didn't hide in the months after the September 11, 2012, assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound, instead giving media interviews in public, including one with CNN's Arwa Damon.

"No problem," he replied in 2013 when Damon asked if he would be willing to meet with U.S. investigators presumably searching for him.

"But not as an interrogation," he added, suggesting instead "a conversation, like the one we are having with you now."

It didn't work out that way.

More than a year later, U.S. special forces nabbed Abu Khatallah in a weekend mission near Benghazi, the Obama administration announced Tuesday.

Under questioning

Instead of the conversation he proposed, Abu Khatallah is being questioned before his transfer to the United States to face charges in the Benghazi attack.

"As a general rule, the government will always seek to elicit all the actionable intelligence and information we can from terrorist suspects taken into our custody," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

The FBI-led High Value Detainee Interrogation Group team, which also includes CIA and military intelligence members, typically conducts such intelligence interviews.

On Tuesday, a federal judge unsealed charges filed last year that accuse Abu Khatallah of killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility with a firearm and a dangerous weapon, and of attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.

The charges, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, also accuse him of discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possessing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

Former prisoner under Gadhafi

Believed to be in his early 40s, Abu Khatallah emerged from years in prison under the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to form an Islamist militia and later became associated with Ansar al-Sharia, a group U.S. officials blamed for the 2012 attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

Coming in the midst of a U.S. presidential campaign, the assault ignited a political firestorm.

Republican critics of President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seized on the vulnerability of the U.S. compound on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to accuse the administration of failing to provide proper security.

They also alleged a politically inspired coverup when former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, now Obama's national security adviser, went on Sunday talk shows a few days later and blamed the unrest on spontaneous protests against an anti-Muslim video made in America.

Such protests occurred in other Middle East region cities that day, but U.S. officials later acknowledged the Benghazi attack was an organized assault instead of simply a spur-of-the-moment demonstration that spiraled out of control.

Clinton said Tuesday in a town hall-style event broadcast on CNN that she hoped Abu Khatallah's capture would bring answers to some of the lingering questions over what happened in Benghazi.

"We want to know who was behind it, what the motivation of the leaders and attackers were," she said, attributing the lingering lack of information today in part to the "fog of war" in post-Gadhafi Libya.

"We tried to control traffic"

In his interview with CNN's Damon, Abu Khatallah offered little explanation for what happened or his exact role.

"I didn't know where the place was," he said, aided by a translator. "When I heard, we went to examine the situation. When we withdrew and there was shooting with medium guns and there were RPG's in the air and people panicked, we tried to control traffic."

A New York Times investigation cited multiple witnesses in Benghazi who described Abu Khatallah as playing a leading role in the attack.

In the CNN interview, Damon asked if anyone from the American or Libyan government tried to get in touch with Abu Khatallah afterward, and he responded: "Never."

To Damon, Abu Khatallah sounded confident at the time, rather than like someone facing an international investigation. He also made clear his sentiments on al Qaeda, the terrorist network linked to Ansar al-Sharia, which means "Supporters of Sharia."

"Al Qaeda is not something to be afraid of," he said. "Al Qaeda is people who are devout about protecting their religion and their people. America is the terrorist."

What took so long?

His public appearances last year and the subsequent months that passed until his capture caused GOP critics to question what took so long. They hope to use the Benghazi issue against Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination if she decides to run.

Asked Tuesday about why it took so long to get Abu Khatallah, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the important thing was that the mission accomplished its goal with no American casualties.

He and other officials have emphasized that building a criminal case against a terror suspect for an attack in a foreign country is challenging and takes time. A law enforcement source also told CNN that Abu Khatallah went into hiding following media interviews he gave last year.

"What matters is not that it took a matter of time to get him, but that we got him," Kirby said. "And I can't speak for his living habits. But let's just say for argument's sake he was living in plain sight. He's not anymore."

Captured key Benghazi suspect will face U.S. criminal courts

What to know about the consulate attacks

Timeline of the Benghazi attacks

Slain ambassador died 'trying to help build a better Libya'

Ex-SEALs, online gaming maven among Benghazi dead