Benghazi attack 'ringleader' arrives in US

June 29, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

WASHINGTON: The suspected ringleader of a deadly 2012 attack on the American consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi arrived in the United States on Saturday in the custody of US authorities.

Four Americans including US ambassador Christopher Stevens were killed on September 11, 2012 when gunmen stormed the US consulate and set it on fire and a CIA outpost was also targeted, in an attack that shocked Washington and has become a highly charged political issue.

"Ahmed Abu Khatallah is in law enforcement custody," a Department of Justice spokesman said in an email to AFP, declining to give further details.

The US State Department has identified Khatallah as a senior leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan Islamist group it brands a "terrorist" organization responsible for a spate of attacks and assassinations.

US commandos captured Khatallah -- who could face the death penalty -- earlier this month in a covert raid on Libyan soil and he was transferred to the United States after being interred on a US Navy vessel.

Special forces, working with FBI agents, carried out the stealth operation to seize Khatallah -- whom the US has accused of being the attack ringleader -- under cover of darkness and withdrew without losses. Libya accused Washington of violating its sovereignty.

The raid two weeks ago represented a victory for President Barack Obama, who has faced intense criticism over his administration's handling of the Benghazi assault and its aftermath.

Khatallah was flown to Washington by helicopter shortly after sunrise from the Navy warship the New York, where he has been held since his high-profile capture, The New York Times reported, quoting US government officials.

The suspect was being held under tight security in a federal courthouse in the US capital, the Times said.

US federal prosecutors have charged Khatallah with murder, carrying a weapon and offering material support to "terrorism," according to an indictment. The first charge potentially carries the death penalty.

The charges reflect accounts from Libyan officials and witnesses who have singled out Khatallah as allegedly taking part in the assault that day.

Khatallah had been seen in public often since and gave an interview to The New York Times last year, striking a defiant tone over a strawberry frappe at a cafe in a luxury hotel in Benghazi.

But US officials have dismissed suggestions that the suspect was "hiding in plain sight" or that the operation to capture him could have been conducted much sooner.

The Benghazi attack raised questions about security at US missions worldwide and has been the subject of fierce political debate. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton faced hostile questioning before lawmakers over the issue.

Republicans alleged that the White House failed to respond decisively and then tried to hide some facts in the grisly episode.

The Obama administration, in turn, has accused critics of politicizing a tragic event and says that it has divulged all the details of the case. (AFP)