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U.S. Captures Suspected Ringleader Of Attack In Benghazi

Sept. 11: The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was aflame after coming under attack.
AFP/Getty Images
Sept. 11: The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was aflame after coming under attack.

The United States has captured a militant suspected of leading the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured by American troops in coordination with law enforcement. Kirby said Khattala was captured Sunday and that all U.S. personnel involved in the operation are safe.

Khattala, said Kirby, is now "in a secure location outside of Libya."

The attack on the consulate in Benghazi back on Sept. 11, 2012, left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Congressional Republicans have criticized the Obama administration over its handling of Benghazi. In May, Republicans announced they were establishing a select committee to investigate the attack.

Khattala is the first suspect apprehended in connection to Benghazi.

The Washington Post, which first reported the story, quotes one U.S. official saying Khattala's capture is "a reminder that when the United States says it's going to hold someone accountable and he will face justice, this is what we mean."

The United States filed charges against Khattala last summer.

In interviews, Khattala has denied involvement in the attack, andas we've reported, he was living in the open.

Khattala has been linked to the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia, which officials in Washington have suspected was behind the attack.

In October 2012, The New York Times spoke to Khattala at a luxury hotel where he was "sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the American and Libyan governments."

Update at 7:55 p.m. ET. Charges Unsealed:

The charges against Khattala have been unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. According to a Department of Justice statement, they are:

-- Killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of a firearm and dangerous weapon and attempting and conspiring to do the same.

-- Providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.

-- Discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possession of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

Update at 5:35 p.m. ET. Will Not Be Sent To Guantánamo:

National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden says Khattala will not be sent to the American prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"The Administration's policy is clear on this issue: we have not added a single person to the GTMO population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system," Hayden said in a statement.

Hayden goes on:

"Indeed, since 9/11, we have used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists. The effective use of the criminal justice system has resulted in the debriefing, conviction and incarceration of U.S. citizens and non-citizens for acts of terrorism committed inside the United States and around the world. The system has repeatedly proven that it can successfully allow us to gather intelligence, handle the threat that we continue to face, and prosecute terrorists."

Update at 2:27 p.m. ET. 'No Matter How Long It Takes':

Speaking in Pittsburgh, President Obama said American special forces acted with "incredible courage and precision," and that Khattala was now being transported to the United States.

"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," Obama said.

Update at 2:07 p.m. ET. Charges:

In a complaint filed last July that was unsealed today, the government charged Khattala with three counts: "killing a person in the court of an attack on a federal facility," "providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death," and "discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possessing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence."

It's still not clear where Khattala will appear in court. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney refused to say whether Khattala was being held at the American prison in Guantánamo.

Update at 12:38 p.m. ET. 'Unwavering Commitment':

In a statement, President Obama says the U.S. has always had an "unwavering commitment to bring to justice those responsible for harming Americans."

He continued:

"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. I recently authorized an operation in Libya to detain an individual charged for his role in these attacks, Ahmed Abu Khatallah. The fact that he is now in U.S. custody is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel. Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system."

In a separate statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said Khattala is facing criminal charges on three counts. The U.S., Holder said, "conducted a thorough, unrelenting investigation, across continents, to find the perpetrators."

Update at 12:14 p.m. ET. 'Not The End':

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. would go to "any lengths" to find and apprehend those responsible.

"The capture of Abu Khatallah is not the end of that effort," he said, according to Reuters. "But it marks an important milestone."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.