CAIRO — A strange silence has met the U.S. capture of a Libyan militant accused in the 2012 attack that killed the American ambassador and three others. In his hometown of Benghazi in eastern Libya, there have been few threats of revenge, only speculation among supporters and opponents that Ahmed Abu Khattala was betrayed by an insider.
Abu Khattala had said for months he had no fear of the Americans snatching him, living at his home and saying he worked as a construction contractor. Before U.S. commandos snatched him from Benghazi a week ago, he had been battling alongside the militant group Ansar al-Shariah against the troops of Khalifa Hifter, a renegade Libyan general who has waged an offensive aimed at crushing Islamic militants around Libya, Abu Khattala's brother Abu Bakr told the Associated Press.
Abu Khattala was a prominent figure in the eastern city of Benghazi's thriving circles of extremists, popular among young radicals for being among the most hard-core and uncompromising of those calling for Libya to be ruled by Islamic sharia law. But he was always something of a lone figure. Even after he joined Ansar al-Shariah — the group accused by the United States of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi — he didn't take a leadership position or a post in its decision-making bodies, said Fadlallah Haroun, a former rebel commander in Benghazi who met Abu Khattala in prison in the 1990s.
"He was always an outsider," Haroun, who opposes the Islamists and whose brother is a top intelligence official, told the AP. "He was a very simple man, who was honest in his talk and independent."
That may have made it easier for the United States to track him down. Among Benghazi officials and militants, there were multiple theories floating over who could have given away his location to the Americans. Some pointed the finger at Hifter. Others said Islamist militias may have turned on him, hoping to relieve the pressure on themselves in Hifter's offensive. So far, a week after his capture, Ansar al-Shariah has not commented — perhaps a sign it was trying to determine who betrayed him.
"For sure he was sold out," Abu Khattala's brother, Abu Bakr, said Friday. "It's very clear that he was betrayed."
Mohammed Hegazi, a spokesman for Hifter's forces, described Abu Khattala as a "spiritual leader" of extremist religious groups and militias in Benghazi. He accused him of planning the looting of banks in the central city of Sirte, without offering evidence.
"Abu Khattala's source of power is the large following among extremist and terrorist groups that believe in him," said Hegazi. "He was their spiritual leader and he was a financier."
But Abu Khattala was not the group's top leader — that was its founder, Mohammed al-Zawahi. While he was close to its leadership, he didn't join any of its decision-making bodies, Haroun said.
Abu Khattala acknowledged in an interview with the AP in January that he was present during the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But he denied involvement in the attack, saying he was trying to organize a rescue of trapped people.
In the attack, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the mission, many waving the black banners of Ansar al-Shariah. The compound's main building was set ablaze. Ambassador Christopher Stevens suffocated to death inside and another American was shot dead. Later in the evening, gunmen attacked and shelled a safe house, killing two more Americans.
At the time, several witnesses said they saw Abu Khattala directing fighters at the site.
One witness told the AP that when he tried to take a picture of Abu Khattala at the scene with his mobile phone, he was snatched by Abu Khattala's followers, beaten and taken to Ansar al-Shariah's headquarters in Benghazi. He said he overheard Abu Khattala vowing to flatten the consulate.
Haroun and Abu Bakr said Abu Khattala arrived in the middle of the chaos. "He was not the one who set everything off," Haroun said. No evidence has emerged that Abu Khattala was involved in the later attack on the safe house.
Abu Khattala is among a number of suspects named in a sealed indictment at the U.S. District Court in Washington for alleged involvement in the attack. The identities of the others in the indictment have not been revealed. This year, the Obama administration accused two branches of Ansar al-Shariah in the attack — the Benghazi branch and another based in the northern city of Darna — and listed them as terrorist groups.
The Darna branch is led by Sufian bin Qumu, a former detainee at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was identified by American officials at the time as a probable member of al-Qaida. He was handed over to Libya in 2007 and later freed.
Abu Khattala was born in Benghazi to a middle-class family originally from the western city of Misrata. He quit school in the seventh grade to work as a car mechanic, his brother said. His father was a soccer player on Benghazi's team.
In the 1990s, he had close ties to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the main militant group battling the rule of Moammar Gadhafi. From the age of 24, he was detained multiple times, spending a total of 12 years in prison. After his last stint in Tripoli's Abu Selim prison, he was freed in 2010 under a reconciliation program.
He rose to prominence during the civil war that overthrew Gadhafi, commanding a small rebel unit he created.