WASHINGTON — Ahmed Abu Khattala had returned home Sunday night after a day of militia skirmishes in Benghazi when U.S. military commandos swarmed his residence south of the waterfront city and took him captive, quickly moving him out of Libya to a U.S. warship.
One of the suspected ringleaders of the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Abu Khattala is the first of the alleged perpetrators to be apprehended. He now awaits a transfer to the United States and a federal trial in the District of Columbia.
U.S. officials said the joint special operations forces-FBI operation had been planned for months and was approved by President Barack Obama on Friday. The Pentagon said there were no civilian or other casualties and that all involved U.S. personnel had left Libya.
Abu Khattala was being held on the Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS New York, which was in the Mediterranean Sea, the Associated Press reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans urged the administration to get as much intelligence out of Abu Khattala as possible before anyone reads him his rights to remain silent, supplies him with an attorney and prepares him for trial in a U.S. courtroom. In fact, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said interrogation of the Libyan was under way and "we hope to find out some positive things."
Abu Khattala is charged with terror-related crimes in U.S. District Court in Washington and will be tried as a civilian, the Obama administration said. The administration's policy is to treat terror suspects as criminals when possible and not send them to the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, like hundreds of terror suspects captured during the administration of President George W. Bush.
After news of the capture became public Tuesday morning, Obama said Abu Khattala "is now being transported back to the United States."
Obama praised the commandos, said by one U.S. official to be from the Army's Delta Force, for "showing incredible courage and precision" in capturing the man who "is alleged to have been one of the masterminds" of the Benghazi attacks.
"It's important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible, and we will bring them to justice," Obama said.
Abu Khattala's capture is a significant breakthrough for the administration in a case that has dragged on for nearly two years since Obama promised shortly after the attacks that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.
Response to the capture quickly divided along partisan lines, with Republicans demanding that Abu Khattala be interrogated at sea and then brought to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for a military trial.
Democrats argued, along with the administration, that he belongs in criminal court, where convictions against numerous terrorism defendants have been won in recent years.
"The administration's policy is clear on this issue," said National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. "We have not added a single person to the (Guantanamo) population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists throughout our federal court system."
Hayden said that Abu Khattala would be "debriefed for intelligence purposes," as has been done in previous, similar cases. Somali citizen Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, picked up off the Somalia coast in 2011, was held at sea and interrogated for months before being advised of his rights to silence and to counsel. Once brought to this country, he pleaded guilty in federal court to a range of charges, including providing material support for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
In October, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, was captured in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in a raid by Delta Force operators and the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team. Briefly detained at sea until he fell ill and was brought to the United States for treatment, al-Libi is awaiting trial in New York for involvement in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
At least a dozen others are known to have been charged in sealed criminal complaints in connection with the Benghazi attacks, although none of the others has been apprehended.
While the specific timing and location of Abu Khattala's initial court appearance in Washington was not known, past cases involving high profile defendants have been held in the District Court's high-security courtroom on the fourth floor, equipped with a wall of bullet-resistant glass between the gallery and the well.
A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service did not immediately respond to questions about where Abu Khattala will be held. High profile defendants in terrorism cases in the past have been held at the District of Columbia jail.
The State Department designated Abu Khattala a terrorist in January, calling him a "senior leader" of the Benghazi branch of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia, a group that arose after the 2011 fall of the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
Ansar al-Sharia was also designated a terrorist organization and held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that left Stevens and State Department information management officer Sean Smith dead.
Two CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed the next day in a mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex where the attackers moved after taking the diplomatic compound.
The Washington Post learned about Abu Khattala's capture Monday but agreed to a request from the White House to delay publication of a story because of security concerns.