U.S Captures Suspected Ringleader Of Benghazi Attack

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The U.S. had filed criminal charges against Ahmed Abu Khattala last year. Now that he has been taken to a secure location outside Libya, he is expected to be sent to the United States to stand trial.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Nearly two years and much controversy later, the man accused of leading the attack in Benghazi, that cost four American lives, is in custody. He was captured in a late-night raid a few days ago by U.S. forces. The night of the attack, in 2012, the Americans who died included the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. President Obama spoke about the news yesterday, while at an event in Pittsburgh. He said, the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala sent an important message.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

MONTAGNE: Abu Khattala will now be put on trial in the U.S. NPR pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following the story and joins us now. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about exactly how this man, Abu Khattala, was captured.

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, it took place on Sunday, just outside Benghazi. He was grabbed by U.S. Special Operation Forces and FBI agents. And apparently, it all went off quite well. Officials say, there were no civilian casualties, no U.S. casualties. And Khattala was quickly taken to, what was called, a secure location. We were not told where, but we understand it was a U.S. warship now in the Mediterranean. We're also told that no Libyan forces took part in this operation and that the Libyan government was informed about it after the raid.

MONTAGNE: And why is he being call the leader of that Benghazi attack?

BOWMAN: Well, U.S. officials say he was the leader of a militia group that they say orchestrated the attack. They say witnesses saw him directing the fighting in the midst of the attack. Now, he denies all this. Khattala was actually very public in the months after the 2012 attack. He gave numerous TV and newspaper interviews, sometimes sitting in a cafe, sipping a drink. He says he headed another militia, not the one, again, allegedly behind this attack. He says he was there that night but showed up after the gunfire started. He said, he was not fighting and he was there basically to help rescue some of the Libyan guards there.

MONTAGNE: And, Tom, he has already been charged before he was ever caught. What are those charges?

BOWMAN: Well, there are three charges; killing an American, aiding terrorism and using a weapon during a crime. And that's basically all we have, Renee. There's no information about what evidence they have against him, about any of these witnesses, because at this point the court documents are still sealed. Now, what officials have said is that there are plenty of witnesses here placing him at the scene of the crime and they say, actually, directing the attack itself.

MONTAGNE: And if he was charged a full year ago, why did it take so long to catch him?

BOWMAN: Well, Republican lawmakers and others are asking that very question. And the Pentagon says, listen, it's hard to launch an operation like this. You have to have good intelligence. You need to have your people in place. And you want to be careful not to kill innocent people. Also the president has to approve it. But again, Khattala was hiding in the open, gave numerous interviews. And now he'll undergo interrogation at this secure location, again, this U.S. warship. And at some point in the coming days, we're told he'll make it back to Washington, D.C. and appear in U.S. District Court.

MONTAGNE: Why would he be tried in a criminal court rather than a military commission at Guantanamo Bay?

BOWMAN: Well, some have called for him to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, among them Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But the White House said, it wanted to rule that out from the start. They said, listen, we've been trying to close Guantanamo. We haven't sent anyone there during the Obama presidency. And the administration basically makes the case that the criminal courts have a very good record of convicting people on terrorism charges. They point to the Times Square bomber, back in 2010, who got a life sentence. And then more recently, in March, up in New York, there was a conviction of Bin Laden's son-in-law.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, on the capture of the man accused of leading the attack in Benghazi.

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