Al­leged mas­ter­mind of Beng­hazi at­tack found not guilty of mur­der

The Guardian Australia - - World News - David Smith in Wash­ing­ton and As­so­ci­ated Press

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

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