The Obama administration’s just-released criminal complaint against the alleged mastermind of the Benghazi terrorist attacks provides a final contradiction to its own evolving explanations for what happened that day.
The Justice Department’s indictment spells out a calculated conspiracy by Ahmed Abu Khatallah and associates to attack the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA annex, which killed four Americans. The indictment might be viewed as a death knell for a theory that the attack resulted from a spontaneous protest against a U.S.-produced video.
Now in custody, Khatallah was a commander of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, and is himself deemed a global terrorist by the State Department.
During President Obama’s re-election campaign, the White House and senior officials blamed the September 11, 2012, onslaught as the work of demonstrators angered by an anti-Muslim YouTube video. Then officials spoke of a smattering of extremists who may have joined in to capitalize on the chaos outside the embassy, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and an aide died as attackers torched the compound.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later sought to terminate discussion of who did it by declaring to a Senate panel: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
But with the capture of Khatallah in June, the Justice Department is characterizing Benghazi not as the impromptu work of a mob but as a conspiracy hatched by terrorists who had infiltrated the port city in eastern Libya.
The unsealed June 26 indictment, coinciding with Khatallah’s U.S. District Court appearance in Washington, states that the grand jury does not know when the conspiracy began. It says Khatallah “did knowingly and intentionally conspire and agree with other conspirators, known and unknown to provide material support and resources to terrorists, that is personnel including himself and others.”
The indictment says Khatallah intended the material support and resources “to be used in preparation for and in carrying out” the attacks that killed the ambassador, his aide and two ex-Navy SEALs protecting a CIA base that came under precision mortar attack.
Khatallah is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday for a full detention hearing.
To retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a member of the ad hoc group Citizens Commission on Benghazi, the information reflects what the White House knew all along.
“The administration knew it was a conspiracy from the start due to all-source intelligence and the warning from al Qaeda to avenge the death of al-Libi in June 2012,” Gen. McInerney said.
He was referring to a CIA drone strike that killed al Qaeda deputy Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly called for revenge against America.
The laying out of a conspiracy charge marks a major move away from assertions early on that a video and a spontaneous crowd caused the four American deaths.
In contrast, the CIA’s first public explanation, after much discussion with White House officials, stated on September 15, 2012, that the carnage was caused by “demonstrations in Benghazi” that “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.”
At that juncture, Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s public relations expert and speechwriter assigned to the National Security Council staff, was pushing an explanation inside the White House that the anti-Islamic video provoked the attacks. This was revealed in internal emails unearthed by the watchdog group Judicial Watch in April.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice recited the video explanation on the Sunday talk shows, even though it was not mentioned in the official CIA explanation. Ms. Rice is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.
A week later, then-White House press secretary Jay Carney said: “We have no information at this point that suggests that this was a significantly preplanned attack, but this was the result of opportunism, taking advantage of and exploiting what was happening as a result of reaction to the video that was found to be offensive.”
On September 28, as more details surfaced about the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia and a mortar attack, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) still shied away from calling it a conspiracy.
“It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate,” the DNI said.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, once the Pentagon’s No. 2 intelligence chief, said the administration had to finally nab Khatallah because the video story fell apart.
“The administration has known where this guy was since the end of September 2012,” Gen. Boykin said. “I have spoken to special operations people, who were telling me that they could go after him and others any time the administration was ready to do so. It took so long because the administration had to see how the video story was going to play out and how big the whole Benghazi issue was going to be.”
Learning all of the conspiracy’s details is a work in progress, which senior officials made clear as Khatallah appeared in court.
“This case remains one of our top priorities, and we will continue to pursue all others who participated in this brazen attack on our citizens and our country,” said FBI Director James B. Comey.