WASHINGTON: The Libyan militia leader suspected in the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans was in federal custody yesterday morning, the US attorney’s office in Washington said.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah was taken to a federal court in Washington from a Navy warship where he had been held since his June 15 capture, US media said.
“Ahmed Abu Khatallah is in law enforcement custody,” said Bill Miller, spokesman for the US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia. He would not comment on where Khatallah was being held, but US officials said on Thursday he was expected to arrive in the United States over the weekend.
US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the September 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi. The attack triggered a political firestorm for President Barack Obama, with Republicans accusing his administration of misrepresenting the circumstances and of lax protection for diplomats.
Khatallah is charged with killing a person on US property, a firearms violation and providing material support to terrorism.
The New York Times reported that authorities fingerprinted and photographed Khatallah and he was expected to appear before a magistrate judge as early as yesterday afternoon.
There was heightened security around the federal courthouse building, which is blocks from the US Capitol and across the street from the National Gallery of Art, prime tourist destinations in Washington. Two or three armed US Marshals patrolled the perimeter of the building.
Khatallah was taken aboard the USS New York, an amphibious transport ship, after his seizure by US special operations forces in a raid on the outskirts of Benghazi.
On the ship, Khatallah was expected to be questioned by an interrogation team that was created in 2009 to seek information from suspects that might prevent future attacks, a US official said.
He was in US military custody for nearly two weeks before being transferred into the American civilian court system. The US federal charges were filed in July 2013 but kept under a court seal until this month.
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.
Khatallah’s capture was a victory for Obama, who has been accused by Republicans of playing down the role of al Qaeda in the Benghazi attacks for political reasons and of being slow to deliver on promises of justice.
Republicans also 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 US 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 US 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.