WASHINGTON — A lawyer for the Libyan militia leader suspected of playing a central role in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client Saturday. The suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was flown to Washington by helicopter shortly after sunrise from a Navy warship where he had been held since his capture two weeks ago in Libya by U.S. Special Operations forces. Abu Khattala appeared for arraignment before a magistrate in the federal courthouse in Washington.
The Justice Department has charged Abu Khattala with three counts in connection with the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and a nearby CIA facility on Sept. 11, 2012. The attacks resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens.
Moving Abu Khattala to Washington to face charges was a significant step forward for the Obama administration. It had been criticized for moving too slowly to apprehend suspects, with Democrats and Republicans injecting partisan statements into the debate over proper embassy security and accurate assessments of militant threats. Some also criticized the administration’s decision to prosecute Abu Khattala in civilian court, rather than through the military tribunal system at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Current and former senior U.S. law enforcement officials briefed on the government’s investigation of Abu Khattala said the next phase of the case — proving the charges against him in federal court — would be particularly challenging because the attacks occurred in a country that is not friendly to the United States.
FBI investigators were not able to visit the crime scenes in Benghazi to collect evidence until several weeks after the attacks because of concerns about security there. The case also relies on testimony from Libyan witnesses who will most likely have to be flown to the United States to testify and who may not hold up well to being cross-examined.
Yet law enforcement officials expressed confidence in the work.
“We have plenty of evidence to convict this guy,” one senior official said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting him to the courthouse.”
The hostile environment in Libya and the difficulty of tracking down and interviewing all the witnesses were among the reasons the investigation took so long, even amid reports that Abu Khattala was meeting with reporters for drinks to discuss the attacks after they occurred.
“We were dealing with one of the most nonpermissive environments at the time, and our guys were able to put together a case,” the senior official said.
While U.S. intelligence agencies were able to intercept electronic conversations that could help the investigation, their classified nature makes them problematic to use in a public criminal trial, according to the officials.
The case is expected to be presented mainly on eyewitness accounts and video from the scene. Hundreds of hours of video from security cameras and other sources were analyzed to produce a narrative of the time leading up to the attacks, the siege of the mission and the CIA annex, and the aftermath, one of the officials said.
“The Department of Justice bats nearly 1,000 percent with these types of extraterritorial cases, but that’s because they put in so much diligence on the front end of the investigations,” said Neil H. MacBride, who was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia from 2009 to 2013. “You only have one shot here. You don’t go to the other side of the world to grab someone without knowing that there is a high probability of a conviction.”
The Justice Department “rarely asks the Department of Defense to grab someone,” MacBride said. “And the Department of Defense isn’t going to put its Special Operations forces on the ground without a high degree of certainty about a case.”
U.S. commandos captured Abu Khattala in a raid on a seaside villa outside Benghazi. He was taken to the Navy warship, the amphibious transport ship New York, in the Mediterranean, where he was questioned by interrogators seeking to learn what he knew about past or planned attacks.
U.S. officials have said Abu Khattala has been cooperative.
The warship left the Mediterranean about a week ago and will eventually return to its home port near Jacksonville, Florida. It had been sent to the Mediterranean to be part of the mission to capture Abu Khattala. The ship typically carries four Osprey aircraft and two helicopters, one of which was used for the transfer Saturday. Its bow was forged with steel from the World Trade Center towers.
About a half-dozen FBI agents who had been with Abu Khattala during his interrogation aboard the ship accompanied him on the helicopter trip to Washington. By midday Saturday, he was being held under tight security at the federal courthouse here, about a mile from the White House.
It was expected that he would be held at a different facility after his arraignment.
Washington is an unusual place for a high-profile terrorism suspect to face charges. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly all such suspects have been tried in federal courts in New York or Alexandria, Virginia.
Witnesses to the Benghazi attacks have said Abu Khattala directed the people assaulting the mission. In interviews with Western news outlets, he has given contradictory statements about his role but maintained he is innocent.