Libyan suspect in Benghazi terror attack pleads not guilty in US court
Federal Grand jury court in Washington hears 'not guilty' plea from Ahmed Abu Khatallah over terrorist attacks in Benghazi after he was controversially captured by US special forces in Libya
The suspected ringleader of a deadly attack on the American mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi pleaded not guilty during a brief appearance in a US federal court on Saturday.
A federal grand jury formally charged Ahmed Abu Khatallah during the rare Saturday session on a single charge of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists for the attacks that killed US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans two years ago.
Abu Khatallah is due back in the court, located nearly 2 kilometres from the White House, on Wednesday for a detention hearing, and again on July 8 for a status hearing.
He was flown to Washington by helicopter shortly after sunrise from a US Navy warship where he had been held and interrogated since his high-profile capture two weeks ago, a law enforcement official told reporters.
The suspect, believed to be 43 and also known as Ahmed Mukatallah, listened to the court proceedings through an interpreter and raised his right hand.
Public defender Michelle Peterson entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Wearing a dark tracksuit, Abu Khatallah had a long, dark gray beard and moustache with curly hair, court sketches showed. He was not handcuffed.
The Justice Department has charged Abu Khattalah with three counts in connection with the attacks that saw gunmen storm the US mission in Benghazi and set it on fire.
A CIA annex was also targeted in the attacks that shocked Washington, quickly growing into a highly-charged political issue.
The case’s lead prosecutor warned that the Justice Department could bring additional charges against Abu Khatallah during the ongoing investigation.
The US State Department has identified Khatallah as a senior leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan “terrorist” group responsible for a spate of attacks and assassinations.
US special forces captured Khatallah – who could face the death penalty – earlier this month in a covert raid on Libyan soil.
The forces, working with FBI agents, carried out the stealth operation to seize Khatallah under cover of darkness and withdrew without loss. Libya subsequently accused Washington of violating its sovereignty.
The raid two weeks ago represented a victory for President Barack Obama, who has faced intense criticism over his administration’s handling of the Benghazi assault and its aftermath.
Some Republicans have criticised the administration’s decision to try Khatallah in a civilian court rather than through the Guantanamo Bay special military tribunals.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte expressed “serious concerns that conducting a rushed interrogation onboard a ship and then turning Khattalah over to our civilian courts risks losing critical intelligence that could lead us to other terrorists or prevent future attacks”.
But in one challenge to the case, FBI investigators were only able to visit the crime scenes to collect evidence several weeks after the assault due to high security concerns.
The case relies heavily on accounts from Libyan officials and witnesses who have singled out Khatallah as taking part in the assault that day.
“We’re very confident in our ability to bring this case to prosecution and secure a conviction,” a senior law enforcement official said.
“The bottom line is you don’t commit the resources we committed to go to the other side of the world apprehending an individual, bringing him on a ship if you are not very confident in your case.”
FBI Director James Comey hailed Abu Khatallah’s capture as a “major step forward” in the investigation, but stressed that “our work, however, is not over”.
“This case remains one of our top priorities and we will continue to pursue all others who participated in this brazen attack on our citizens and our country,” he added.
Khatallah had been seen in public often since and defiantly spoke with reporters last year at a luxury hotel in Benghazi.
But US officials have dismissed suggestions that the suspect was “hiding in plain sight” or that the operation to capture him could have been conducted much sooner.
The Benghazi attack raised questions about security at US diplomatic facilities worldwide and the assessment of militant threats. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has faced hostile questioning by lawmakers over the issue.
Republicans alleged that the White House failed to respond decisively and then tried to hide some facts in the grisly episode.
The Obama administration, in turn, has accused critics of politicising a tragic event.