Prosecutors urged jurors Thursday to convict the man accused of orchestrating the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, saying he directed his “hit squad” to storm the compound because he hated that Americans were operating a spy facility in his country.
Ahmed Abu Khattala “wanted the U.S. out” and thought that Americans “were the cause of all the world’s problems,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. DiLorenzo during closing arguments.
But at the end of the seven-week trial, defense attorneys questioned the evidence presented, and said witnesses who testified against Mr. Abu Khattala were paid handsomely and had reason to lie about him.
Federal public defender Michelle Peterson said Mr. Abu Khattala wasn’t even at the Benghazi mission when the compound was stormed and that he was alerted to activity there by a friend and later stopped by wearing slippers and casual clothing to get a better idea of what was going on.
Four Americans were killed during the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the compound and a separate CIA annex.
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and State Department information management officer Sean Smith died after the diplomatic compound was set on fire. Security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed in a separate mortar attack on a nearby CIA-run compound, where the evacuees from the mission took shelter.
The attack reverberated in Washington politics for years, with Republicans faulting then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and accusing the Obama administration of misleading the public about the circumstances surrounding the incident.
Mr. Abu Khattala was captured in Libya in 2014 and brought to the U.S. to stand trial. He was charged with 18 criminal counts, which range from murder of an officer of the United States to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. He could get life in prison if convicted.
Closing arguments ended late in the day Thursday, and the panel of jurors will begin deliberations Monday.
Mr. DiLorenzo said that phone records showed Mr. Abu Khattala, who led a local militia, was in continuous contact with several of the key players seen at the mission ahead of and during the attack.
“There may be other participants, but they are acting in concert with his men,” Mr. DiLorenzo said, describing the movements of identified participants on surveillance video of the compound. “His army, his militia that operates outside the law, is the tip of the spear in this attack.”
He also cited testimony in which witnesses described four different “stand down orders” in which Mr. Abu Khattala told others not to interfere in the attack or not to allow rescuers access to the mission once it was under attack.
He also noted that Mr. Abu Khattala was in contact with Mustafa al-Imam, who this month became the second person publicly charged in connection with the attack. There were three phone calls between the two men, said Mr. DiLorenzo, noting that Mr. al-Imam was seen carrying maps from the mission compound that prosecutors alleged were used to conduct precision mortar attacks on the CIA annex.
Ms. Peterson said there was no physical evidence linking Mr. Abu Khattala to the attack and that it made no sense for him to hate America because he had previously fought alongside the U.S. against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Rather, she said, he was a deeply religious man who wanted Shariah law in his own country.
“They want you to hate him. That’s what this case is about — presenting evidence in a way designed to get you to hate Mr. Abu Khattala,” she said.
She also called one witness who testified her client was “a bit of a con man” who only began providing information to prosecutors after the U.S. government began paying him money.
Another, who testified under the alias “Ali,” received $7 million from the government for befriending Mr. Abu Khattala after the attack, providing details about his whereabouts and ultimately arranging the 2014 trip during which the military captured him. But Ali grew tired of working for the government, at one point suggesting he could just kill Mr. Abu Khattala instead of spying on him.
“If you are willing to kill for the United States government, is it that much of a stretch to say you would be willing to lie for them?” Ms. Peterson said.