WASHINGTON, June 17, 2014 — The lack of central government control in Libya combined with the counter-insurgent operations by a rogue general in Benghazi likely provided the opportunity for the United States to arrest the leader of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last weekend.
According to reporting from the Washington Post, U.S. Special Operations forces, backed by FBI agents, apprehended Ahmed Abu Khattala near Benghazi and whisked him to “a secure location outside Libya.” The Post quotes a U.S. official as saying “…to be clear: This was a unilateral U.S. operation,” suggesting the Libyan government was not privy to information concerning the arrest ahead of time.
The United States captured another terrorist, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, in Tripoli last October, drawing condemnation from Libya for encroaching on its sovereignty.
Khattala is the first suspect arrested in connection with the Benghazi attack, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans. The U.S. District Attorney has filed charges against at least twelve individuals related to the attack.
The U.S. State Department has listed Khattala, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, as a terrorist, and also officially designated the group as a terrorist organization.
Witnesses reported seeing Khattala leading the attack against the U.S. mission, directing fighters. He is known for virulent anti-U.S. views, and he is considered extremely radical. According to New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick, who conducted extensive interviews in Benghazi and has met Khattala, Khattala is “erratic,” and even his followers consider him “mentally unstable.”
Khattala was jailed several times under Gaddafi, spending more than 16 years in prison.
Khattala was openly living in Benghazi, and was even quoted in press after speaking to journalists. He called Libya’s national army a “national chicken” and told journalists he had no plans to go into hiding over allegations that he was behind the Benghazi attack.
He also said that although he was not a member of al-Qaeda, he would be “proud to be associated” with the group.
Khattala also told journalists in 2012 that he was not part of the initial attack on the compound, but that he arrived when the gunfire started and was trying to break up a traffic jam. He said he came back to the compound to help rescue Libyan guards.
His obvious presence has raised questions about why the United States has been unable to arrest Khattala, despite the pending charges. The strength of Islamist militias in the region and Libyan sovereignty issues likely hampered U.S. operations, until recently.
Advances by a rogue general against the Islamist militants in Benghazi and the impotent central government likely provided the opportunity for the United States to arrest Khattala.
The central government in Tripoli has suffered lack of legitimacy since officially taking over from former dictator Mohamar Gaddafi, and its tenuous grasp has weakened over the last several months.
Last month, the government named a new Prime Minister after the previous official resigned due to threats against his family. However, the resigning Prime Minister refused to cede power to his successor, leading to still more confusion and a political stalemate. The government has been unable to establish control over the plethora of militias who effectively rule the country, nor has it been able to ensure stability in the country.
Meanwhile, a former Libyan General, Khalifa Haftar, independently launched “Operation Dignity” last month against Islamist militants in Benghazi. Haftar, who appears to have ties to the United States and may even be receiving U.S. support, is backed by most of the current and former members of Libya’s national military.
The government says Haftar has no authority to act, and that he is illegally using Libyan military assets in his fight. Haftar responds by accusing the government of supporting the terrorists and of lacking the ability to stop the spread of terrorists in the country. He has called on the Libyan people, and the military, to “rise up” against the government.
Haftar helped Gaddafi overthrow King Idris in 1969 but was dismissed by Gaddafi in 1987. Haftar then moved to the United States, but returned to Libya in 2011 to fight against Gaddafi.
The arrest is likely to draw criticism from Tripoli, questions about the legality of arrests on foreign soil, and reignite the debate on holding foreign terrorists without charges or giving them access to counsel.
Washington, however, almost certainly will defend its action as legitimate in the name of counter-terrorism, and will deliver Khattala to face trial only after extensive “debriefing” by intelligence and law enforcement.