- - 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.

Some of these reports detailed the flow of money and men from Iran and Syria to Ansar al-Shariah, the group that ultimately claimed responsibility for the attacks.

On June 22, 2012, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens convoked the embassy’s security team in Tripoli, following the failed assassination attempt on the British ambassador in Benghazi and several smaller attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound there.

In cables partially released to Congress, Stevens referred to the security team as his Emergency Action Committee. The head of the Site Security Team of 18 U.S. special forces operators then assigned to the embassy in Tripoli, Lt. Col. Andy Wood, had just returned from a mission to Benghazi and warned the ambassador that Ansar al-Shariah was planning to escalate its operations.

“We’ve got to abandon Benghazi, or seriously beef it up,” Col. Wood said. “We are going to be hit.”

The CIA was waiting for the Iranians to make a move. On July 31, 2012, they thought they saw them coming when an eight-man Iranian medical team arrived in Benghazi, ostensibly to help the local Red Crescent (the Muslim version of the Red Cross).

The Iranians knew that they were being watched, though, and according to my sources, staged the kidnapping of the Red Crescent team, taking them beyond CIA surveillance. Ostensibly in the hands of a radical jihadi militia somewhere in Benghazi, the Iranians were still in play.

Members of that Red Crescent team — in reality, senior operatives of Mr. Suleymani’s Quds Force — handled all the details for the attacks that cost the lives of four Americans that night. This is one of the many dark secrets of Benghazi that the U.S. government does not want you to know.

I hear skeptics wonder why Iran would get involved in Libya at all, and why would Tehran take the risk of angering the United States, especially at a time when they were hoping to craft a global diplomatic settlement over its nuclear program?

The answer is simple; namely, because the Iranians knew the United States would not strike back. They have been attacking us nonstop in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, with little or no response.

Benghazi was a state-sponsored terrorist attack by the Islamic republic of Iran using local cut-outs but also Iranian officers sent to Benghazi to carry out the mortar attack on the CIA annex.

Next question: What are we going to do about it?

Kenneth R. Timmerman is the author of “Dark Forces: The Truth About What Happened in Benghazi” (Broadside Books, 2014).