CAIRO — US commandos have captured the suspected ringleader of the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the White House and Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
Apprehension of the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, is a major breakthrough in the 2 1/2-year investigation into the attack, which also killed three other Americans. President Barack Obama vowed swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice. But efforts to identity and prosecute the attackers were stymied by the chaos of the event and the broader mayhem in Libya.
Officials briefed on the investigation have said for more than a year that a plan to capture Abu Khattala was on Obama’s desk awaiting approval. But the administration held back, in part for fear that a US raid to retrieve him might further destabilize the already tenuous Libyan government.
Diplomats also suggested that the US investigators might have been struggling to produce sufficient witness-testimony and other evidence to convict Abu Khattala of responsibility for the deaths in a US court.
Abu Khattala had scoffed at the US effort to hold him accountable — another reflection of the atmosphere of lawlessness that pervaded Libya after the overthrow and death of Moammar Gahdafi, the country’s longtime autocrat, in October 2011.
The execution of the raid, which was first reported by The Washington Post, appears to signal that the investigators are confident in their case, and it may also reflect an acceptance that Libya is unlikely to become a stable partner in the pursuit of the culprits any time soon.
Indeed, a renegade general based in Benghazi is currently waging a low grade military campaign against local Islamist militants like Abu Khattala, and the United States may have sought to arrest the suspect before the general, Khalifa Heftar, killed him in the fighting there.
The Pentagon announced that Abu Khattala had been captured Sunday.
“All US personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya,” a Pentagon statement said.
Obama also issued a statement.
“Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans,” Obama said.
The seizure of Abu Khattala by the US team, Obama said, “is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel. Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.”
A US law enforcement official said the military-law enforcement team — composed of US commandos and FBI agents — captured Abu Khattala somewhere on the outskirts of Benghazi. No shots were fired, no civilians were hurt and no one else was taken into custody, the official said, in what was apparently a surprise raid.
“It was very clean, in and out, with no one hurt,” said the official, who was briefed on the operation and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation. Asked if Abu Khattala was being transferred to the United States, the official said, “He’s not here — yet.”
The official declined to offer any other details.
A senior US diplomat briefed on the operation rebuffed any notion that the timing of the raid had been arranged by the Obama administration to divert attention from the Sunni militant offensive now convulsing Iraq, more than two years after Obama completed the withdrawal of US forces from that country.
“There was zero connection to Iraq,” the official said.
Noting that Abu Khattala had been under surveillance by US intelligence officials for months, the official added: “None of these kind of things are executed casually. There was a significant degree of planning.”
Asked about the impact of removing Abu Khattala from the extremist ranks in eastern Libya, the official said, “He has clearly been a negative factor in Benghazi, and now there’s one less negative factor.”
Obama’s Republican critics, who have sought to portray the Benghazi attack as an administration cover-up and efforts to prosecute those responsible as weak, were cautious in their initial response to news of Abu Khattala’s capture.
“It is obviously good news that this terrorist is now in American custody, and I am grateful for the work of our military — assisted by the FBI — in capturing him,” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said in a statement. “I look forward to hearing more details regarding the raid, and I expect the administration to give our military professionals time to properly gather any useful intelligence he has.”
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.