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Why did it take so long to capture key Benghazi suspect?

June 17, 2014 at 6:06 PM EDT
U.S. special forces, with the help of the FBI, apprehended Abu Khattala, one of the suspected ring leaders of the 2012 embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya. Khattala is the first accused perpetrator of the attacks to be taken into U.S. custody. Jeffrey Brown discusses the details of the capture with The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, who first broke the story.

GWEN IFILL: Nearly two years after the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the U.S. has captured one of the suspected ringleaders in the offensive.

President Obama heralded the mission this afternoon at an event in Pittsburgh, shortly after the news broke.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are all aware of the tragedy that happened in Benghazi, where four Americans, including our ambassador there, Chris Stevens, was killed in an attack on a consulate office there.

I said at the time that my absolute commitment was to make sure that we brought to justice those who had been responsible. And, yesterday, our special forces, showing incredible courage and precision, were able to capture an individual, Abu Khattala, who was — who is alleged to have been one of the masterminds of the attack.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And he is now being transported back to the United States. I say that, first of all, because, you know, we continue to think about and pray for the families of those who were killed during that terrible attack.

But, more importantly it’s important for us to send a message to the world that, when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown has more on the dramatic capture.

JEFFREY BROWN: The special forces team apprehended Abu Khattala with the help of the FBI in a secret raid outside Benghazi. He’s the first accused perpetrator of the 2012 attacks to be nabbed and taken into U.S. custody.

And joining me now is the reporter who first broke the story, Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post.

Karen, thanks for joining us.

How much detail do we know at this point about the operation that led to his capture?

KAREN DEYOUNG, The Washington Post: Well, we don’t know a whole lot.

We know that it occurred on Sunday afternoon, Washington time, that it was, according to the Pentagon, months in the planning, that President Obama approved it on Friday, and that it was pretty much carried off without any violence at all. Nobody was hurt. And he was very quickly removed from his villa in the south of Benghazi.

JEFFREY BROWN: And done with or without the cooperation or coordination with the Libyan government?

KAREN DEYOUNG: The Libyans were not informed prior to this operation.

Of course, there have been previous operations in Libya, notably one last October where an al-Qaida suspect was abducted. And, at that time, the administration informed Libya what it was also interested in getting Abu Khattala. They didn’t get him at that point. And they didn’t tell.

And, again, their response was just, well, it’s no surprise to them that we have been trying to get him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where is Abu Khattala now? It sounds as though the intent is to bring him here and arraign him to stand trial?

KAREN DEYOUNG: He is in a secure location outside of Libya. That’s all the military and the administration have said.

Previously, when incidents like this have happened, they have taken people and put them aboard U.S. warships for some initial interrogation. There has been a criminal complaint filed against him in district court in the District of Columbia.

You know, most of these cases have been tried in New York, but this one, I think, will be the first terrorist trial, big-time terrorist trial in Washington, D.C., and so he will be brought here shortly is the only term they will use to be arraigned and ultimately to stand trial.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of the stranger aspects to all this, of course, is that reporters have sat down with him in the past two years, with Abu Khattala, since the Benghazi attacks.

There was a — some sense that he was kind of hiding in plain sight. So, what’s the explanation at this point for why it took so long to capture him?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, certainly, initially, right after the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, for several months afterwards and into the beginning of last year, he was fairly frequently interviewed by American, British and other media in Benghazi.

The actual criminal complaint against him wasn’t filed until last summer. And the explanation that the administration has for why is it as easy for them to find him at least a year ago, a little more than a year ago, and so difficult for them is that — not that it was necessarily difficult to know where he was, but to arrange the kind of raid that they carried out where no one was hurt, where there was an element of surprise, where they could get quickly in and out.

That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the evidence that links him to what happened in Benghazi? How — what does the government say about how solid it is? This is a way for you to backtrack a little and remind us who he is and his connections to various groups.

KAREN DEYOUNG: He is the head of the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Sharia, which is an Islamist militant group that was formed after the fall of Gadhafi.

Abu Khattala himself was imprisoned by Moammar Gadhafi for many years. In the videos and in witnesses’ statements that were compiled after the Benghazi attacks, there were members of Ansar al-Sharia — there were some indications that they had done it.

And he himself, in these various media interviews that he did, acknowledged that he was there, although he usually said that he came upon the assault of the diplomatic compound when it was almost over, and — but didn’t participate in the initial assault.

They say they have witnesses. And, again, they do have some video.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the U.S. authorities, I gather, they think that they — well, they fairly believe that others were involved in the attack. So, are they still in pursuit? What’s the situation there?

KAREN DEYOUNG: There — in this criminal complaint that was filed under seal last summer here in the District of Columbia, there were as many as a dozen others that were listed as wanted for the same — the same attacks.

They say they’re still after them. They haven’t caught them yet. We don’t know what all their names are, but that the investigation is still ongoing and that they’re still trying to capture them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, everything, of course, related to Benghazi has been a major political issue, and I saw some of the reaction right away today, Mitch McConnell saying that the suspect needs to be interrogated extensively. He said we shouldn’t read him his rights and get him a lawyer.

You said earlier the intent is to bring him to trial in New York, perhaps. So, this is…

KAREN DEYOUNG: In Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington.

So this is going to continue as a — clearly, as — in — in American politics?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, it was interesting.

The very first reaction this morning, when the story broke, was, good for you, American military, you did a great job, but very quickly became divided along partisan lines, with many Republicans saying, we hope that you’re not going to treat him as a normal criminal defendant.

This is a line that is very familiar in these kinds of cases, suggesting that he be taken to Guantanamo, which, of course, the Obama administration is not going to do. They have been trying to close Guantanamo and have refused to put anyone in addition there.

They say that they have had much better luck with civilian criminal trials, that there have been many of them and many convictions and many people are in jail, while the track record of the military commissions in Guantanamo is not very good in terms of commissions, and, in fact, there are a lot of people there they don’t know quite what to do with because they can’t convict them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and all that to unfold in coming months.

Karen DeYoung, thank you so much.

KAREN DEYOUNG: You’re welcome.