- - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Without surprise, Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Libyan jihadi who was snatched by U.S. special forces two weeks ago on allegations he participated in the Benghazi attacks, pleaded not guilty last weekend at his first court appearance in the United States.

Libyan government officials and Western media outlets have long accused Mr. Abu Khattala of having played an instrumental role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that cost the lives of four Americans in Benghazi.

However, Mr. Abu Khattala likely was little more than a patsy. Yes, he was captured on video-surveillance footage at the scene of the burning diplomatic compound, but my sources say he was just part of a large “pickup team” of local jihadis that the attack’s real organizers successfully manipulated.

The real mastermind of the attacks was Qassem Suleymani, the “Wizard of Oz of Iranian terror.” According to two former Iranian intelligence officers, who have a track record of providing information to Western intelligence agencies, Mr. Suleymani sent three top deputies to Benghazi to conduct reconnaissance against the U.S. facilities there, craft an attack plan and recruit locals to carry it out.

One of those men was a top Lebanese Hezbollah operative named Khalil Harb, who was placed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist of international terrorists with little fanfare after the attacks.

As an Arab, Mr. Harb blended in more readily with the local jihadis than did his Iranian bosses. He became the frontman for Mr. Suleymani’s operations in Libya, which went well beyond the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks.

I first learned of the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Benghazi in March 2011 from an American security contractor then in Libya. From the very beginning, the Iranians used local Arabs as well as Lebanese, Syrians and Sudanese recruits for their purposes.

As the uprising against then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi progressed, their goal shifted from helping the rebels get rid of Gadhafi to preventing weapons from reaching jihadi groups in Syria battling a longtime Iranian ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

That’s what made them focus on the CIA Annex in Benghazi, which they thought had become the hub for arms-smuggling operations to the Syrian rebels.

Mr. Suleymani’s men included signals intelligence experts who attempted to penetrate the communications systems used by the CIA and National Security Agency operatives working out of the annex in Benghazi.

John Maguire went head-to-head against Mr. Suleymani when he was deputy chief of station in Baghdad after the 2003 war. The Iranians “were into our coms,” he told me. “They were into our operational planning. That’s how they were able to kill so many Americans. The Iranians are a determined, global [intelligence] service.”

When Mr. Maguire starting taking a closer look at the way the Benghazi attacks were carried out, with meticulous planning, long-term surveillance and a lightning mortar strike that killed former U.S. Navy SEALs Ty Woods and Glen Doherty, he saw the handiwork of his nemesis.

“The team in operational command in Benghazi were Qasem Suleymani’s people,” the former Baghdad chief of station told me. “They were a mature, experienced, operational element from Iran. These guys are the first-string varsity squad.”

The U.S. intelligence teams working in Benghazi picked up on the Quds Force operators, and placed them under surveillance.

According to my sources, who include current and former U.S. special forces officers who were directly involved in Libya during this period, some 50 to 60 intelligence reports were produced on the Iranian presence in Benghazi in 2011 and 2012.

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