Alleged mastermind of Benghazi attack found not guilty of murder
A militant accused of masterminding the 2012 attacks on US outposts in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans has been convicted on terrorism-related charges but found not guilty of murder.
Prosecutors said Ahmed Abu Khattala orchestrated the deadly assault, which ignited a political firestorm in Washington and was used by opponents of Hillary Clinton during last year’s US presidential campaign. The 46-year-old pleaded not guilty to the charges and his lawyers sought to pick holes in the evidence during the trial.
The federal jury in Washington deliberated for five days before returning its mixed verdict, acquitting Khattala of all but four of the 18 charges against him. He was found not guilty of the most serious charges, including murder, and will be spared a life sentence, but could still face up to 60 years in prison.
Khattala sat without expression as the verdicts were read, except to cast an occasional glance into the courtroom gallery, the Washington Post reported.
US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in the attack, which began on 11 September 2012, along with Sean Patrick Smith, a state department information management officer. Nearly eight hours later at a nearby CIA complex, two more Americans, contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in a mortar attack.
The Benghazi incident had wide political consequences, with Republicans accusing Barack Obama’s administration of intentionally misleading the public and stonewalling congressional investigators, though officials denied any wrongdoing.
Republicans repeatedly accused Clinton, then secretary of state, of not doing enough to protect the diplomatic compound. The issue dogged her throughout last year’s election, in which she was beaten by Donald Trump.
During the trial, which opened on 2 October, assistant US attorney John Crabb asserted that Khattala “hates America with a vengeance” and that his “hatred simmered until it boiled over”.
Crabb said this led him to direct the attacks aimed at killing personnel and plundering maps and other property from the US mission in Benghazi, where he then triumphantly paraded around the site carrying an AK-47. Later, according to Crabb, the defendant was heard at his apartment saying: “I attacked the American embassy” and would have killed more Americans that night if others had not intervened.
But the defence denied that Khattala was the ringleader behind the attack. It characterised him as a “Libyan patriot” who fought on the US side in the war against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was ultimately deposed. The defence claimed he simply went to the attack site because he heard there was a protest and wanted to see what was happening.
Jeffrey Robinson, a lawyer for Khattala, told the court: “He didn’t shoot anyone. He didn’t set any fires. He did not participate in the attacks.”
Khatallah had been awaiting trial since 2014, when he was captured by a team of US military and FBI officials in Libya and taken on a 13-day journey to the US aboard a navy vessel. He was interrogated for days to obtain national security intelligence before being advised of his rights. A new team of FBI investigators then pressed him further, this time to produce evidence prosecutors could present at trial.
Defence attorneys argued the interrogation tactic was illegal, but Khattala did identify other members of the Islamic extremist militia group blamed for the Benghazi attack. Among the men he pegged was Mustafa al-Imam, who was captured last month and faces trial at the same federal court in Washington.
A courtroom sketch shows Ahmed Abu Khattala listening to a interpreter during his trial. Photograph: Dana Verkouteren/AP
The US consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during the clashes in 2012. Photograph: Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters/ Reuters