The legal case against the accused leader of the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, began with him being spirited into Washington in darkness for a hearing hastily arranged on a Saturday afternoon.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah was flown by helicopter just before dawn from a Navy ship, according to a law enforcement official who requested anonymity to discuss the details. Amid heavy security, he was taken to a federal courthouse blocks from the U.S. Capitol, the official said.
As armed U.S. marshals patrolled outside, the unshackled Khatallah stood impassively as his court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered a not-guilty plea. He wore black sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt and sandals, addressing the court through a translator when asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola to give his name and say whether he understood the proceedings. It was over in less than 15 minutes.
It was the start of a case that will serve as a test of President Barack Obama’s commitment to the civilian prosecution of terrorism suspects. Throughout Obama’s tenure, Republicans have criticized the Democratic leader for relying on civilian courts for such cases, rather than military tribunals.
“Now that Ahmed Abu Khatallah has arrived in the United States, he will face the full weight of our justice system,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “We will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant’s alleged role in the attack that killed four brave Americans in Benghazi.”
Khatallah was captured in Libya on June 15 by a special U.S. military operation. Obama ruled out sending him to the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, reopening the debate over what to do with militants captured overseas.
The Republican-led U.S. House has conducted multiple investigations into security preparations in Libya and the Obama administration’s response to the violence, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed. The questions loom as a campaign issue for Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack, if she decides to seek the presidency in 2016.
Charges were lodged against Khatallah in secret last year in a criminal complaint unsealed this month. The Justice Department today said it obtained an indictment of him June 26 on a charge of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists resulting in death.
Khatallah could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. He next faces a detention hearing July 2.
Killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Libya were U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, a State Department security official, and two Central Intelligence Agency contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The Justice Department has described Khatallah as a senior leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, a group “involved in terrorist attacks” and the assault on the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi.
The State Department named him a “specially designated global terrorist” in January, placing him on a sanctions list to block his assets and prohibit U.S. persons from dealing with him.
Khatallah had been held since his capture on the USS New York, a ship partially made of steel from the World Trade Center towers that collapsed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Holder has said the U.S. is continuing to look for co-conspirators in the Benghazi case.
The civilian trial process for terrorists is complicated in part because witnesses often aren’t available, though it hasn’t prevented convictions.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to go on trial in a U.S. civilian court. He was convicted in New York in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law was the most senior al-Qaeda member to be tried in a civilian court; he was convicted of aiding the group after its Sept. 11 attacks by helping its recruitment process and through speeches he made.
A federal jury in Manhattan found Sulaiman Abu Ghayth guilty of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, scheming to provide material support to al-Qaeda and providing manpower through his recruiting efforts.
Those pushing for Khatallah to be held at Guantanamo Bay have included Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and vocal critic of the administration’s foreign policy and its handling of the Benghazi attack.
“It would be the biggest mistake for the ages to read this guy his Miranda rights,” Graham said, referring to the right for U.S. criminal suspects to remain silent and be counseled by a lawyer.
Obama took office promising to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, which was set up by then-President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11 attack to hold detainees captured in the war on terrorism. There are about 150 suspected terrorists left at the prison, and Congress has put restrictions on Obama’s ability to release or transfer them to other countries.
The Republican-led House started investigating the Benghazi incident less than a month after it occurred, spotlighting the administration’s initial claim that it stemmed from “spontaneously inspired” demonstrations over an anti-Islamist video. Officials later backed off that claim, and said that attackers linked to terrorist groups stormed the diplomatic compound and set fire to it.