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Head of Islamist group is called leader of attack

CAIRO — Libyan authorities have singled out Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of the Benghazi-based Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, as a commander in the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, last month, Libyans involved in the investigation said Wednesday.

Witnesses at the scene of the attack on the US Mission in Benghazi have said they saw Abu Khattala leading the assault, and his involvement is the latest link between the attack and his brigade, Ansar al-Sharia, a puritanical militant group that wants to advance Islamic law in Libya.

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The identity and motivation of the assailants have become an intense flash point in the US presidential campaign. Republicans have sought to tie the attack to Al Qaeda to counter President Obama’s assertion that by killing Osama bin Laden and other leaders his administration had crippled the group; Abu Khattala and Ansar al-Sharia share Al Qaeda’s puritanism and militancy, but operate independently and focus only on Libya rather than on a global jihad against the West.

But Abu Khattala’s exact role, or how much of the leadership he shared with others, is not yet clear. His leadership would not rule out participation or encouragement by militants connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian Islamic insurgency that adopted the name of bin Laden’s group a few years ago to bolster its image but has so far avoided attacks on Western interests.

Like the other leaders of the brigade or fighters seen in the attack, Abu Khattala remains at large and has not yet been questioned. The authorities in Tripoli do not yet command an effective army or police force, and members of the recently elected Parliament have acknowledged with frustration that their government’s limited power has shackled their ability to pursue the attackers.

The government typically relies on self-formed local militias to act as law enforcement, and the Benghazi-area militias appear reluctant to enter a potentially bloody fight against another local group, like Ansar al-Sharia, to track down Abu Khattala.

Asked last week about Abu Khattala’s role, a US official involved in a separate US investigation declined to comment on any particular suspects, but he indicated that the United States was tracking Abu Khattala and cautioned that the leadership of the attack might have been broader than a single man.

‘‘Ansar al-Sharia is not only a shadowy group, it’s also quite factionalized,’’ the official said. ‘‘There isn’t necessarily one overall military commander of the group.’’

It was not immediately clear if that assessment might have changed with new information from Libyan witnesses. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Abu Khattala was a leader of the brigade, but withheld accounts of his specific role in the attack to protect witnesses. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that three witnesses had seen him during the Sept. 11 attack and that the Libyan authorities were focused on his role.

The Journal reported that Abu Khattala had been seen at large in the Leithi neighborhood of Benghazi, known for a high concentration of Islamists. But his exact whereabouts are unclear. Libyan border security is loose, so it is possible that he will flee or has already left the country.

Abu Khattala was a member of the Islamist opposition under Moammar Khadafy and was imprisoned in his notorious Abu Salim jail. Unlike most of the other Islamist prisoners, however, Abu Khattala never renounced violence as a means of seeking political change.

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