WASHINGTON — A Libyan militant charged in the 2012 Benghazi attacks was in federal law enforcement custody, the U.S. attorney’s office said Saturday. Security at the capital’s federal courthouse was heightened in anticipation of a possible court appearance by the suspect later in the day.
Spokesman William Miller declined further immediate comment regarding Ahmed Abu Khattala, who faces criminal charges in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans from the attack on Sept. 11, 2012.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation of the Benghazi attacks. Officials had been questioning Abu Khattala aboard a Navy amphibious transport dock ship that transported him from to the United States.
A criminal complaint filed last year that was unsealed after his capture charges him with terror-related crimes, including killing a person during an attack on a federal facility, a crime that can be punishable by death.
Abu Khattala may face a judge as soon as Saturday for an initial court appearance at which the government would outline the charges against him. He almost certainly would remain in detention while the Justice Department sought a federal grand jury indictment against him.
The prosecution in a courthouse in the nation’s capital reflects the Obama administration’s stated position of trying suspected terrorists in the American criminal justice system even as Republicans call for Abu Khattala and others to be held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Critics say suspected terrorists don’t deserve the legal protections afforded by the American court. The Obama administration considers the civilian justice system fairer and more efficient.
The violence on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon quickly became a political flashpoint. Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks. The White House, meanwhile, accused Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy.
Abu Khattala, a prominent figure in Benghazi’s circles of extremists who was popular among young radicals, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.
In the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, with many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful Islamic militia.
The compound’s main building was set ablaze. Ambassador Chris Stevens suffocated to death inside and another American was shot dead. Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans.
At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.
No evidence has emerged that Abu Khattala was involved in the later attack on the safe house.
Abu Khattala is one of just a few cases in which the administration has captured a suspected terrorist overseas and interrogated him for intelligence purposes before bringing him to federal court to face charges.
Those cases include Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was arrested in Jordan in March 2013 and turned over to U.S. agents. A jury in New York City convicted him in March of conspiring to kill Americans.