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Accused mastermind of Benghazi attacks acquitted of murder

  • FILE - This Oct. 2, 2017, file courtroom sketch depicts Ahmed Abu Khattala listening to a interpreter through earphones during the opening statement by assistant U.S. attorney John Crabb, second from left, at federal court in Washington, in the trial presided by U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper. Defense attorney Jeffery Robinson, sits behind Crabb in a light blue suit and Michelle Peterson, also a member of the defense team, is at far right. A federal jury has found a suspected Libyan militant not guilty of the most serious charges stemming from the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Jurors on Nov. 28, 2017, convicted Ahmed Abu Khattala of terrorism-related charges but acquitted him of murder. (Dana Verkouteren via AP) Andrew Harnik—AP



Tribune Washington Bureau
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

WASHINGTON — A federal jury convicted a Libyan militia leader of several terrorism-related charges on Tuesday but acquitted him of all murder charges in the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, a partial success for U.S. efforts to prosecute accused terrorists in civilian courts.

Ahmed Abu Khatallah was found not guilty of murder in the armed attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission and nearby CIA station that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.

Republican critics long charged that Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, had failed to provide adequate security for the mission, had ignored warnings of likely violence, and failed to respond swiftly to the coordinated assault.

Multiple congressional and State Department investigations found the charges untrue, but Benghazi became a political flashpoint for Clinton’s opponents, including Donald Trump, before and during the 2016 presidential race.

During an eight-week trial in federal court here, jurors saw gritty surveillance videos and listened to emotional witness accounts of how armed men suddenly stormed the lightly guarded U.S. compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012.

Videos showed militants kicking in a door and carrying gasoline that was used to set the compound on fire. They also could be seen grabbing documents that prosecutors say were used to pinpoint the location of a secret CIA compound about a mile away.

Stevens and another U.S. diplomat, Sean Smith, died in the fire, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed later that night in mortar attacks on the CIA annex.

Khatallah, now 46, was a leader of the Ansar al Sharia militia, one of the Islamist groups that fought to depose Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and had spent time in Gadhafi’s prisons.

After the 2012 attacks, he kept a public profile in Benghazi, even giving media interviews to talk about the raid.

In mounting their case against Khatallah, U.S. prosecutors had to acknowledge that he wasn’t at the U.S. mission or CIA outpost when the shooting began, and did not set the fires or shoot the mortars.

Instead, they described him as an extremist who hated Americans and cited an array of circumstantial evidence to argue that he had masterminded the attacks.

They presented testimony from informants who said Khatallah had called for a strike on American spies during a meeting at a mosque in Benghazi, and cited phone records that showed Khatallah receiving calls just after the attacks began.

One witness said Khatallah said he wanted to kill “all the Americans.”

The government’s star witness, a Libyan businessman who appeared in court using the fake name Ali Majrisi, was paid a $7 million reward after he lured Khatallah to a seaside villa, where U.S. commandos grabbed him in 2014 and put him on a ship.

Khatallah’s defense lawyers said he was a political scapegoat for the U.S. and that he only showed up at the U.S. diplomatic mission later that night because he heard there was an anti-U.S. protest.

The defense hammered at the credibility of the informants, saying they were motivated by a big payday to make up stories about Khatallah.

After he was seized, Khatallah was taken to a waiting U.S. warship and subjected to a two-stage interrogation that is now the government’s favored approach to handling terrorists.

First questioned in secret by intelligence officers seeking details of active terrorist plots, Khatallah was then read his Miranda rights and subjected to a second round of questioning by criminal investigators collecting evidence for trial.

In Khatallah’s case, the approach worked; he continued to talk to FBI investigators without a lawyer present after he was read his rights.

But the tactic was less successful in handling a U.S. citizen who allegedly fought for Islamic State and surrendered on the Syrian battlefield in September. He has apparently refused to speak to criminal investigators and the U.S. is still holding him in secret.

While the Khatallah trial was underway, U.S. forces in Libya captured another terrorism suspect, Mustafa al-Imam, and brought him back to the U.S. to face a charge of aiding terrorism.

The criminal prosecutions have proven far more efficient than the government’s first strategy in the war on terrorism — holding accused terrorists at the Guantanamo Naval Base for trial by military commissions.

That process remains tangled in court challenges and delays, and some of the accused 9/11 terrorists still have not been brought to trial after more than 15 years in custody. The base now holds just 41 prisoners.