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Militia leader denies role in embassy attack

Libyan Islamist says he arrived to help comrades

BENGHAZI, Libya — Just days after President Obama vowed to hunt down and bring to justice those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the US diplomatic compound here, Ahmed Abu Khattala — one of those considered a ringleader — spent two leisurely hours Thursday evening at a luxury hotel full of journalists, relaxed in a red fez and sandals, sipping mango juice on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean and scoffing at the threats coming from both the US and Libyan governments.

Libya’s fledgling army was a ‘‘national chicken,’’ Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission’s attackers, he chuckled at the weakness of the Libyan authorities. And he accused US leaders of ‘‘playing with the emotions of the American people’’ and ‘‘using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections.’’

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Abu Khattala’s defiance — no authority has even questioned him about the attack, he said, and he has no plans to go into hiding — offered insight into the shadowy landscape of the self-formed militias that have come to constitute the only source of social order in Libya since the fall of Moammar Khadafy.

A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other brigades thought to be more accepting of the West, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.

Although Abu Khattala said he is not a member of Al Qaeda, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al Qaeda’s puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said the United States had its foreign policy to blame for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. ‘‘Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?’’ he asked. ‘‘Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?’’

Owing in part to the inability of either the Libyans or the Americans to mount a serious investigation, US dissections of the assault on the diplomatic mission have become muddled in a political debate over the identities and motivations of the attackers. Some Republicans have charged that the Obama administration initially sought to obscure a possible connection to Al Qaeda to protect its claim to have brought the group to its knees.

Abu Khattala, 41, added his own new spin. Contradicting the accounts of many witnesses and the Obama administration, he contends the attack had grown out of a peaceful protest against a video made in the US mocking Islam.

He also said that guards inside — Libyan or American, he was not sure — had shot first at the demonstrators, provoking them. And he asserted, without providing evidence, that the attackers had found weapons, including explosives and guns mounted with silencers inside the US compound.

But he insisted that he had not been part of the aggression. He said he had arrived just as the gunfire was beginning to crackle and had sought to break up a traffic jam around the demonstration. After fleeing for a time, he said, he entered the compound at the end of the battle because he was asked to help rescue four Libyan guards working for the Americans who were trapped inside.

Although Abu Khattala is being scrutinized by the governments of Libya and the United States for his role, according to officials, and has been described by witnesses as being an active participant in the assault, he insisted that he had played no active role in the assault, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans. At the same time, he expressed a notable absence of remorse over what had occurred. ‘‘I did not know him,’’ he said of J. Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador who was killed.

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