The United States this weekend managed to capture the leader of one of the groups accused of committing the Benghazi attack in 2012, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, and will bring him to the U.S. for trial, a move that will bolster arguments that suspected terrorists should be tried in the United States.
For months now, the U.S. has been seeking to get the Libyan government to cooperate in the capture of who the State Department has called a “senior leader” of Ansar al-Sharia, the group suspected of taking the lead in the attack that killed four Americans in 2012. The raid that led to Ahmed Abu Khattala’s arrest took place on Sunday but remained secret until Tuesday. According to the Post, he was “captured near Benghazi … following months of planning” in a joint operation of the FBI and U.S. special forces. “There were no civilian casualties related to this operation, and all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya,” Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby confirmed in a statement.
“The fact that he is now in U.S. custody is a testament to the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel,” Obama said in a statement. “Because of their courage and professionalism, this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.” And as the Post reported, “[o]ne jubilant official called Khattala’s capture ‘a reminder that when the United States says it’s going to hold someone accountable and he will face justice, this is what we mean.’”
In facing justice, Khattala will be transferred to the District of Columbia’s District Court where a warrant for his arrest was issued last August. The charges against him were recently unsealed, along with at least a dozen other potential suspects. Unlike Khattala, other recent high profile terrorism trials have taken place in the Southern District Court of New York, which convicted Sulaiman Abu Ghaith — son-in-law of Osama bin Laden — and was the potential site of the civilian trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The latter trial has been put on hold for years over protests, largely stirred up through conservative media, that Mohammed is too dangerous for a non-military trial.
“It would be sadly ironic if a criminal prosecution in federal court was able to deliver justice to ringleader of the Benghazi attack before the military commission at Guantanamo of the mastermind of September 11 is concluded despite the Benghazi attack occurring 11 years later,” CAP senior fellow Ken Gude told ThinkProgress in an email. “It is incomprehensible why those who are perceived to take the hardest stance on terrorism advocate for a military commission system that is so obviously inferior and practically incapable of delivering justice on terrorists.” So far the trials at Guantanamo have since their inception obtained only a handful of convictions related to terrorism, a statistic that civilian courts continue to exceed. In 2008, the military tribunals had only concluded three cases — in the same time period, according to Human Rights Watch, civilian courts had landed 145 convictions in 107 cases.
But opponents of Obama’s counterterrorism policies were quick to issue their disappointment over the way that Khattala will be handled moving forward. One Fox News guest, Pete Hegseth, lamented the lack of “enhanced interrogation techniques” — also known as torture — to use against the captive Khattala. “He’s on the ship at this point, presumably because of what this administration stated, they’re not using enhanced interrogation techniques and this guy seems to be happy to chat,” Hegseth said. “If he’s smart, he’s clamming up, too. now he’s used everybody we won’t use difficult techniques to extract information and he’s going to the U.S. where he’ll have Miranda rights in New York City and given a high profile lawyer to defend him.”
The issue of Miranda rights appeared to be the focus of the critiques. “Rather than rushing to read him his Miranda rights and telling him he has the right to remain silent, I hope the administration will focus on collecting the intelligence necessary to prevent future attacks and to find other terrorists responsible for the Benghazi attacks,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said in a statement. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who has also criticized the White House for not sending suspected terrorists to Guantanamo, said reading Khattala his Miranda rights would be a mistake “for the ages.”
For now, like Gharith before him and Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai who was captured in a raid in Libya in October, Khattala will not be reaching the U.S.’ shores just yet. Though officials won’t say precisely where, he is currently being held at sea on a navy vessel. In the increasingly common technique, he will be interrogated away from the U.S. before being turned over to the FBI who will question him further so as to not endanger the admissibility of evidence. That he will be facing a trial at all, rather than a drone strike or time at Guantanamo, is a positive step towards the shift in counterterrorism policy that Obama pledged last year and reiterated in a speech at West Point this year.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the charges against Khattala were filed in New York. This has since been corrected.