The Justice Department has filed criminal charges against Libyan militia leader Ahmed Khatallah, the first indictment in last year’s deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi — signaling a shift in a case whose political undertones have roiled the Obama administration over the past 11 months.
A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that Mr. Khatallah, who is suspected of involvement in several Islamist groups in Benghazi, including Ansar al Sharia, is named in a sealed indictment and that other suspects may soon be facing charges.
News of the charges prompted a cautious reaction in Washington on Tuesday night. Some lawmakers suggested that the Justice Department was responding to nearly a year of pressure from Republicans over the assault, which took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“I think they’re feeling pressure to do something, to show they’re making progress,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, who for months has been pushing for the creation of a select congressional committee to investigate the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.
He added that charges against suspects in the case likely have been delayed by “confusion” among U.S. law enforcement authorities about the process by which individuals such as Mr. Khatallah, who is believed to be armed and living openly in Eastern Libya, may be arrested and where they ultimately may be tried.
“Part of the problem I think they have is that they don’t know what they’ll do if they find somebody,” said Mr. Wolf, adding that the Obama administration has stated its desire to close the prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and, as a result, “they don’t know where they’ll bring him.”
Mr. Khatallah’s name first surfaced in international news reports during the days and weeks after the attack, when Libyan sources said he could have been a ringleader on the night of the attacks.
Such assertions, however, were followed by an unusual twist in October, roughly a month after the attack, when Mr. Khatallah, who is believed to be in his early 40s, gave a brazen interview to The New York Times in Benghazi.
During that interview, as well as a subsequent interview with CNN, Mr. Khatallah claimed that no authorities have ever questioned him about the attack.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said U.S. authorities should waste no time apprehending Mr. Khatallah.
“If our government knows who perpetrated the attack that killed four Americans, it is critical that they be questioned and placed in custody of U.S. officials without delay,” said Mr. Issa, who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Osama bin Laden had been criminally charged long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but was not apprehended. Delays in apprehending the suspected Benghazi killers will only put American lives at further and needless risk.”
A Justice Department spokesman said he could “neither confirm nor deny” the indictment, first reported by CNN, or the existence of the sealed charges against Mr. Khatallah, whom Libyan authorities for months have cited as a suspect in the Benghazi attack.
Republicans have slammed the Obama administration’s handling of the attack and its aftermath — claiming the White House sought to downplay the seriousness of the incident for political gain ahead of the November presidential election. They have criticized the level of embassy security and questioned the false talking points provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice for her public explanations of the attack.
Republicans also have taken political aim at Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack and is a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2016.
Others have criticized the seriousness with which President Obama has sought to follow through on his promise to “bring to justice the killers” who carried out the attack. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. this year promised at a congressional hearing that the investigation was being pursued relentlessly. But Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration’s reliance on a criminal prosecution, rather than military action, to bring suspects to justice.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, acknowledged that the investigation had not moved ahead as fast as lawmakers would like.
“Its been frustrating for many of us that it hasn’t moved faster,” he told CNN, which broke the news Tuesday afternoon that sealed charges had been filed in the case.
As a former prosecutor, Mr. Schiff said, he recognized how difficult it would be to build a case. “Security is a paramount concern” in any operation in Libya, he said. “Collecting evidence is very difficult, [and] finding and interviewing witnesses is extremely difficult.”
But he said the probe, which he called “a joint intelligence and law enforcement investigation,” was “moving forward. We have identified many of the parties involved and we’re still trying to identify what the command and control structure was,” he said.
The Associated Press reported in May that American officials had identified five men who might be responsible for the attack. The FBI released photos of three of the five suspects, asking the public to provide more information about the men pictured.
The images were captured by security cameras at the U.S. diplomatic post during the attack, but it took weeks for the FBI to see and study them. The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies identified the men through contacts in Libya and by monitoring their communications.
They are thought to be members of Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the U.S. diplomatic facility before the violence and which quickly claimed responsibility for the attack.
Waiting to prosecute the suspects instead of grabbing them now could add to the political burden the Benghazi case already has placed on Mr. Obama and any Democrat who wants to succeed him.
The New York Times interview with Mr. Khatallah cited unidentified witnesses to the attacks as claiming that he was a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a local group in Benghazi that is not on any official U.S. list of terrorist organizations but has long advocated for the implementation of Islamist law in Libya.
Sources and analysts have told The Washington Times that the attacks most likely were carried about by a collection of Benghazi militants, including low-level members of Ansar al-Sharia, an Egyptian group known as the Muhammad Jamal network, and members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
But in The New York Times interview, Mr. Khatallah insisted that he was not part of the attack. While he praised Ansar al-Sharia and said he was close to the group, he claimed that he was not a member, but rather the commander of an Islamist brigade known as “Abu Obaida ibn al-Jarrah.”
• Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.