WASHINGTON — The United States said Tuesday it had captured a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a raid that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, and ignited a political firestorm in Washington.
President Barack Obama said in a statement he had authorized the operation in Libya on Sunday in which U.S. troops, working with law enforcement personnel, captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah. He told an audience later in Pittsburgh that Khatallah was being brought to the United States.
“Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans,” he said in a statement. He said Khatallah would “face the full weight of the American justice system.”
After the 2012 attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Republicans accused the Obama administration of playing down the role of al-Qaida in the attack for political reasons.
They also said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had failed to take adequate steps to ensure the safety of American diplomatic personnel, an issue that is still resonating as Clinton considers running for president in 2016.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Khatallah was being held aboard an American ship after he was grabbed on the outskirts of Benghazi in an operation carried out by U.S. special operations forces.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. troops had acted with “extraordinary skill, courage and precision,” and the complex operation resulted in no casualties. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said all U.S. personnel involved had left Libya.
A U.S. official said Khatallah would be charged and prosecuted through the U.S. court system and would not be sent to the prison for suspected al-Qaida militants in Guantanamo, Cuba.
That is in line with Obama’s policy of prosecuting suspected militants caught abroad through the U.S. justice system rather than trying them in the military tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay prison, which he is trying to close.
A criminal complaint released by the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., accused Khatallah of killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility, providing material support to terrorists and using a firearm in commission of a crime of violence.
The Libyan government had no immediate comment on the U.S. announcement. The Pentagon said the United States had notified Libya of the operation, but a spokesman did not say whether it was before or after the capture.
It was the second time the administration has said U.S. special operations forces have gone into Libya to detain a militant. A U.S. Army Delta Force team grabbed al-Qaida suspect Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli in October 2013 and sent him to a U.S. Navy ship for interrogation.
Al-Liby was later charged in a U.S. federal court in New York in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which killed more than 200 people.
Khatallah was expected to be questioned by an elite interagency interrogation team created in 2009 to seek information from suspects in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks, a U.S. official said.
The official could not say whether members of the U.S. High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which is housed at the FBI’s National Security Branch, were already in place to question Khatallah aboard the ship where was held.
Lawmakers welcomed Khatallah’s capture, but Republicans said they were concerned about whether the administration would take full advantage of the opportunity to interrogate him for his intelligence value.
“I want him to be held a sufficient period of time under the law of war to gather intelligence,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “We’re shutting down intelligence-gathering. We’re turning the war into a crime, and it will bite us in the butt.”
“I think they should take him to Guantanamo,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “That’s why we have the detention facilities and it’s totally inappropriate to keep him anyplace else.”
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said Khatallah stood a better chance of actually facing trial if his case went through the criminal justice system. Only a handful of people had been tried before military commissions while several hundred had been convicted in federal court, he said.
“It’s a tired response from their side,” he said of the Republican calls for a transfer to Guantanamo.