Benghazi suspect pleads not guilty
Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Libyan militia commander said to be the "mastermind" behind the Benghazi attacks, appeared in federal court yesterday and pleaded not guilty to terrorism related charges.
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, Ahmed Abu Khattala spoke just two words, both in Arabic. He replied "yes" when asked to swear to tell the truth and "no" when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding.
Abu Khattala becomes the most recent foreign terror suspect to be prosecuted in American courts, a forum the Obama administration contends is both fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case is being tried in Washington despite concerns from Republicans in Congress who say he should not be entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system.
A grand jury indictment handed up under seal Thursday and made public Saturday accuses Abu Khattala of participating in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
That crime is punishable by life in prison. The government said it soon would file more charges against Abu Khattala.
During his initial court appearance, the defendant listened via headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He wore a two-piece black track suit, had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly gray, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back.
He looked impassively at U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Abu Khattala's court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Facciola ordered the defendant's continued detention, but the judge did not say where Abu Khattala would be held.
The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattalah, who now was confined to a detention facility in the capital region, ending a harried day for the Libyan.
Is Khattala really the Benghazi attack "mastermind"? Witnesses among onlookers of the attack say he was seen directing members of his militia. And, a security camera apparently spotted him at the embassy.
But Khattala's militia was small potatoies. There is no proof he was directing the dozens of fighters who attacked the diplomatic compound.
Why build him up as a mastermind then?
Khattala told the New York Times that the reason he participated in the attack was that he was angry over the anti-Muslim video:
In the period before the attack, Mr. Abu Khattala was living in el-Leithi, known for its high concentration of militant extremists. He made his living as a building contractor in blue Dickies coveralls. But he was still active with a small, part-time militia, which at certain times over the last two years controlled at least one checkpoint on a highway near Benghazi.
On the day of the attack, Islamists in Cairo had staged a demonstration outside the United States Embassy there to protest an American-made online video mocking Islam, and the protest culminated in a breach of the embassy’s walls — images that flashed through news coverage around the Arab world.
As the attack in Benghazi was unfolding a few hours later, Mr. Abu Khattala told fellow Islamist fighters and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.
In an interview a few days later, he pointedly declined to say whether an offensive online video might indeed warrant the destruction of the diplomatic mission or the killing of the ambassador. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.
Several witnesses to the attack later said that Mr. Abu Khattala’s presence and leadership were conspicuous from the start. He initially hung back, standing near the crowd at Venezia Road, several witnesses said. But a procession of fighters hurried to him out of the smoke and gunfire, addressed him as “sheikh,” and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound.
The idea that this ignorant, half crazed Islamist who operated one checkpoint in Libya was the mastermind of the attack is absurd. But you can see where the administration would think that building him up to be some kind of leader would be advantageous in advancing their own narrative of why the attack occurred.
I wouldn't be surprised if the administration builds this thing up to be the "trial of the century."