U.S. Special Forces captured one of the suspected ringleaders of the deadly terrorist attacks in Benghazi in a secret raid in Libya, Obama administration officials said Tuesday, prompting praise for the military operation and fueling a debate over the prisoner’s legal status.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah was seized Sunday near Benghazi by U.S. troops working with the FBI in a long-planned counterterrorism operation.
Khatallah is the first person to be captured in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Administration officials at first blamed the terrorist assault on rioting over a video that offended Muslims.
The precision raid reportedly followed months of planning. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the operation resulted in no “civilian” casualties. He said all U.S. personnel involved in the raid, which included the Army’s renowned Delta Force, have left Libya safely.
Khatallah is now in U.S. custody in a secure location — believed to be a Navy ship — outside Libya, officials said. Authorities are expected to bring Khatallah to Washington, where the U.S. attorney filed charges against him last July in connection with the Benghazi attack.
The capture was a much-needed boost for President Obama, who has been roundly criticized for the administration’s initial public words over the nature of the Benghazi attack in the midst of his re-election campaign and for failing to bring any of the perpetrators to justice.
The House this spring launched a special committee investigation of Benghazi after the discovery of a White House email suggesting that Mr. Obama’s top aides wanted to downplay terrorism as the cause of the attack.
The president said in a statement Tuesday that he authorized the raid and that Khatallah’s capture “demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans.”
Mr. Obama praised the efforts of U.S. military, law enforcement and intelligence personnel, saying “because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.”
Some Republican lawmakers, while hailing the capture and praising the troops, said Khatallah should be taken instead to the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Mr. Obama is intent on closing. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said the suspect should undergo “detention and interrogation” at Gitmo.
“In order to locate all individuals associated with the attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans, we need intelligence,” said Mr. Rubio, a likely 2016 presidential contender. “That intelligence is often obtained through an interrogation process.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said the suspect should be interrogated before U.S. authorities advise him of his legal right against self-incrimination.
“Before any prosecution process begins … it is vital that Khatallah be fully interrogated,” Mr. McKeon said. “This act of terrorism was not committed by one man alone — all the perpetrators deserve to be brought to justice and we need as much intelligence as possible regarding the terrorist networks now spreading across Libya. For that reason, and to better protect the United States from future attacks, it is vital that we learn all we can from him before we read him his rights.”
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden dismissed calls for Khatallah to be taken to Gitmo.
“We have not added a single person to the [Gitmo] population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system,” she said.
“Since 9/11, we have used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists. The system has repeatedly proven that it can successfully allow us to gather intelligence, handle the threat that we continue to face, and prosecute terrorists,” she said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the administration intends to put Khatallah on trial before a civilian jury on at least three criminal charges, including killing a person during an attack on a federal facility.
Mr. Holder said Khatallah was captured after the U.S. “conducted a thorough, unrelenting investigation, across continents, to find the perpetrators.”
“Our nation’s memory is long and our reach is far,” Mr. Holder said. “The arrest of Ahmed Abu Khatallah represents a significant milestone in our efforts to ensure justice is served for the heinous and cowardly attack on our facilities in Benghazi.”
Some Republicans criticized the plan to prosecute a terrorism suspect in a civilian court.
“This suspect is an enemy combatant, and trying him in the United States as if he had the protective rights of an American citizen would be a mistake,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.
News of the capture also revived lingering questions about the timing of the raid. U.S. authorities generally knew Khatallah’s whereabouts for more than a year, and there were strong indications last summer that U.S. forces were prepared to seize him.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said Tuesday that Khatallah “has been openly defying the United States for more than twenty months.”
However, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the operation was complex and Adm. Kirby told reporters that the operation was time-consuming and opportunities to seize Khatallah were not abundant.
It was not like “he was going to McDonald’s for milkshakes every Friday night and we could have just picked him up in a taxi cab,” he said. “These people deliberately try to evade capture, and putting yourself in a position where you can properly [identify] and move against them takes a lot of planning. 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.”
Pentagon officials were tight-lipped about the weekend operation, a stark contrast to the way they handled the raid in Pakistan that netted Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Adm. Kirby told reporters multiple times that he could not get into specifics surrounding the operation that netted Khatallah.
The Sunday afternoon operation came as “no surprise to anyone, least of all the Libyan government,” which was notified of unilateral U.S. efforts to capture Khatallah, Adm. Kirby said.
The other Americans killed in Benghazi in 2012 were Sean Smith, a State Department employee, and former Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who were working as security contractors.
The State Department designated Khatallah a terrorist in January and described him as a senior leader of Ansar al-Shariah, a militant group that emerged after the fall in 2011 of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The criminal complaint against Khatallah, also known as Ahmed Mukatalah, was filed under seal July 15 by FBI Special Agent Michael M. Clarke. It charged him with killing people during an attack on a federal facility, providing material support to terrorists that resulted in death, and discharging or brandishing a firearm during a crime.
The arrest also marks the first efforts at prosecution in an incident that has dogged former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also may run for president in 2016 but has faced repeated questions about the breakdown of diplomatic security on her watch.
Mrs. Clinton said Tuesday, during a CNN town hall meeting to promote her latest book, that she was “very pleased” about Khatallah’s capture, but she got the suspect’s name wrong in her first attempt.
“It’s taken more than two years to bring this perpetrator to justice,” Mrs. Clinton said. “But Ahmed Abu Khalil has been very much — Khatallah — has very much on the minds of our law enforcement, our military and our intelligence professionals since that night in September of 2012.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that since the Benghazi attack, his agency has “focused with intensity on strengthening security at our high-threat posts around the world.”
“But we have also been focused on another mission of unfinished business: bringing to justice the terrorist murderers responsible for the attacks in Benghazi,” Mr. Kerry said. “This bold action by the superb United States military is a clear reminder to anyone who dares do us harm that they will not escape with impunity.”
On the question of bringing Khatallah to the U.S., Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said it was “totally inappropriate” to hold the suspect at a location other than Guantanamo Bay.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, called it the suspect’s arrest “obviously good news” but seemed to support Khatallah’s detention at Gitmo.
“I expect the administration to give our military professionals time to properly gather any useful intelligence he has,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement.
The U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and a nearby CIA facility were attacked on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, amid protests in other Muslim countries over an anti-Islam video produced in the U.S. During the attack, the U.S. facilities came under heavy-weapons fire.
Mr. Stevens reportedly died in a fire at the diplomatic compound. He was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
Although some U.S. officials said within hours that the attack was likely carried out by terrorists, Mr. Obama and top aides initially blamed it on rioting over the video. Susan E. Rice, then ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on Sunday talk shows several days after the attack to put forward the administration’s now-discredited explanation for the motive.