WASHINGTON — US commandos operating under the cover of night seized the man suspected of leading the deadly attack on the US Mission in Benghazi, Libya, the government announced Tuesday, ending a manhunt that had dragged on for nearly two years and inflamed domestic and international politics.
With drones hovering overhead, about two dozen Delta Force commandos and two or three FBI agents descended on the outskirts of Benghazi just after midnight local time Monday; grabbed the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala; stuffed him into a vehicle; and raced away, officials briefed on the operation said. No shots were fired, and the suspect was spirited out of Libya to a US Navy vessel in the Mediterranean.
The capture was a breakthrough in finding the perpetrators of an episode that has been politically divisive from the start.
President Obama and the State Department have been buffeted by multiple investigations and charges of misleading the public about the circumstances of the attack, which cost the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012. The president and administration officials have rebutted the allegations and accused Republicans of politicizing a tragedy.
Through it all, Abu Khattala has remained free, at times almost taunting the United States to catch him, eliciting more criticism of Obama for not doing enough to bring him to justice. In recent months, Abu Khattala had gone underground. But fresh intelligence obtained last week indicated that he “was going to be in a specific place that was advantageous” because there would be few people around and less risk to US commandos, officials said. Obama gave the order on Friday to capture him.
“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 during an unrelated trip to Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “And that’s a message I sent the day after it happened, and regardless of how long it takes, we will find you.”
The capture provided a rare piece of good news for Obama at a time when challenges have mushroomed in places like Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. Yet even a casualty-free raid generated further debate about what would happen to Abu Khattala.
Officials said he would be brought to the United States in the coming days to face charges in a civilian court.
A sealed indictment sworn out secretly last July and made public Tuesday outlined three counts against him in connection with the deaths of Stevens, Glen A. Doherty, Sean Smith, and Tyrone S. Woods.
But some Republicans argued that Abu Khattala was a terrorist who should be sent to the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and held as an enemy combatant.
Either way, the operation brought relief to relatives who had been eager for some sort of action to find the organizers of the attack. “It’s about time,” Charles Woods, the father of Tyrone Woods, said Tuesday.
Even as they hailed the capture, Obama administration officials were vague in explaining why it took so long to go after Abu Khattala, who was linked to the attack shortly after it happened and even gave an interview to a New York Times reporter over a strawberry frappé on a hotel patio without apparent fear of being found.
Some US officials, who, like others, declined to be identified discussing sensitive operations, said there had been a proposal to capture Abu Khattala for at least a year.
But it was not clear that Obama had considered such a plan. “It is not true that the president has had the operation sitting on his desk for a year,” said another official familiar with the White House’s point of view.
Government agencies on Tuesday brushed off critics who asked why the authorities had needed so long to grab a man who met openly with a reporter. “Frankly, it’s not a surprise that an individual like this would show up for an interview,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “We don’t think they would show up for a scheduled meeting with the Special Forces.”
Rear Admiral John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, scoffed at the idea that Abu Khattala should have been captured earlier.
“The presumption in the question is that, you know, he was going to McDonald’s for milkshakes every Friday night, and we could have just picked him up in a taxicab,” he said. “I mean, these people deliberately tried to evade capture.”