The Obama administration is looking at expediting the movement of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the suspected ringleader of the 2012 Benghazi attacks, onto U.S. soil from the Navy ship where he is currently being held in the Mediterranean Sea, Defense Department officials said Thursday.
Military leaders and Department of Justice personnel are mulling plans to use a military aircraft or charter plane to bring Khatallah to a prison inside the United States. He has been held in international waters aboard the USS New York since being captured by U.S. special forces in Libya on Sunday.
The administration has announced that Khatallah will face trial in a federal civilian court rather than being brought before a military tribunal-style court at Guantanamo Bay — like a small handful of other high-profile terrorist suspects, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
While an initial plan reportedly was in place to bring him to the U.S. mainland aboard the USS New York — a 10-day venture at best — one Defense Department official told The Washington Times on Thursday that other options are now being weighed.
“We still haven’t determined how we are going to get him back,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the transport operation.
The official did not say why Khatallah was still being kept in international waters on a naval vessel. Asked if the delay was related to Department of Justice plans to interrogate Khatallah, the official merely noted that government officials could question him “just as easily” in the United States.
By air, Khatallah’s trip to the United States would take about seven hours. But questions remained Thursday about the logistics associated with moving the suspect by air, since the USS New York — a Navy amphibious transport dock ship — is not large enough for a plane to land on and collect him.
Ferrying him from the ship by helicopter may also be tricky, since it may be difficult for U.S. officials to find a partner nation willing to lend their facilities for Khatallah to be transferred from the ship and then put on a plane to the United States.
Separately, U.S. officials have not yet said which specific federal court district will hold Khatallah’s trial. The Justice Department announced charges this week, accusing him of taking part in the fiery assault on U.S. facilities that killed former Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
During his captivity on the Navy ship this week, Khatallah has been told that he faces a slew of terror-related charges in the United States, including “killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving use of a firearm,” according to a report by The New Yorker.
The Pentagon announced the capture on the outskirts of Benghazi earlier this week, but Rear Adm. John Kirby remained tight-lipped Thursday about almost every aspect of the operation — from its scope to when the U.S. government officially notified Libya of the covert operation. The Pentagon spokesman deflected reporter questions during an afternoon press gaggle, saying only, “I’m not gonna get into the specifics.”
Nabbing Khatallah was a time consuming, difficult task, Adm. Kirby said. It was not as if he was “going to McDonald’s for milkshakes every Friday night and we could have just picked him up in a taxicab,” he said.
“I mean, these people deliberately try to evade capture, and putting yourself in a position where you can properly I.D. and move against them takes a lot of planning,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody is going to apologize for the effort, over such a long period of time, that eventually led to his capture.”
Adm. Kirby declined to say whether the operation might lead to additional arrests of suspected participants in the 2012 Benghazi attack. Mr. Stevens died from smoke inhalation after a rocket-propelled grenade struck and set fire to a U.S. diplomatic post.