CAIRO — Ahmed Abu Khattala was always open about his animosity toward the United States, and even about his conviction that the Muslims and Christians were locked in an intractable religious war. “There is always hostility between the religions,” he said in an interview.
During the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, Abu Khattala was a flamboyant presence. Witnesses saw him directing the swarming attackers who ultimately killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Even after the attack, he offered only vague and contradictory denials about playing a role, while apparently enjoying the notoriety it brought him. He sat for repeated interviews with Western journalists and even invited a correspondent for tea in the modest home where he lived openly, with his mother, in the Benghazi neighborhood of el-Leithi.
But for all his brazenness, Abu Khattala also holds many tantalizing secrets for the Americans investigating and debating the attack in Benghazi 2½ years ago.
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His apprehension by U.S. military commandos and law-enforcement agents may finally begin to address some of the persistent questions about who carried out the attack and why. Those questions have spawned a small industry of conspiracy theories, political scandals, talk-radio broadcasts, and a continuing congressional investigation.
Despite extensive speculation about the role of al-Qaida in directing the attack in Libya, Abu Khattala is a local Islamist militant, with no known connections to international terrorist groups, according to U.S. officials briefed on the criminal investigation and intelligence reporting, as well as other Benghazi Islamists who know him.
In interviews, Abu Khattala professed his admiration for Osama bin Laden and blamed U.S. foreign policy for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he remained a distant admirer, having spent most of his adult life jailed for his extremism under Moammar Gadhafi.
During the uprising against Gadhafi, Abu Khattala formed his own militia, which played a small role in the NATO-backed uprising.
But within a few months, he had pulled his small band back from the front, deeming most of his fellow Islamists insufficiently committed to establishing a puritanical theocracy and too close to the West.
After Gadhafi fell, Abu Khattala was one of the disgruntled veterans of the uprising who kept Benghazi on edge. Though he had friends among the militia leaders of the city who were close to U.S. and British diplomats who took residence in the city, he kept his distance from foreign diplomats and rallied his own supporters to protest what he viewed as the foreign interference in Libya’s affairs.
What he did in the period just before the attack has remained unclear. But Abu Khattala told other Libyans in private conversations during the night of the attack that he was moved to attack the diplomatic mission to take revenge for an insult to Islam in a U.S.-made online video.
An earlier demonstration venting anger over the video outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had culminated in a breach of its walls, and it dominated Arab news coverage. Abu Khattala told both fellow Islamist fighters and others that the attack in Benghazi was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.
In an interview days after the attack, he pointedly declined to say whether he believed an offense such as the anti-Islamic 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 Abu Khattala’s presence and leadership were evident 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 “sheik,” and then gave him reports or took his orders before plunging back into the compound.
Viewing him as the central figure in the attack, a local official, Anwar el-Dos, approached Abu Khattala for help in entering the compound. The two men drove into the mission together in Abu Khattala’s pickup truck, witnesses said. As the men moved forward, the fighters parted to let them pass.
When the truck doors opened inside the walls, witnesses said, Dos dived to the ground to avoid gunfire ringing all around. But Abu Khattala strolled coolly through the chaos.
“He was just calm as could be,” a young Islamist who had joined the pillaging said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Abu Khattala showed up on internal security cameras at about 11:30 p.m., according to U.S. officials who have viewed the footage.
A short time later, Abu Khattala drove to the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah, a local Benghazi militia whose members, witnesses said, played a prominent role in the attack. One of the young fighters with him instructed another not to keep a looted electronic device for fear that the Americans might trace it, according to a Libyan who was present for the conversation.
At one point, a fighter asked Abu Khattala what to do with the remains of the compound. “Flatten it,” he said.
Later that night, Abu Khattala appeared to prepare for another phase of the attack. One young fighter with him told another to “cleanse ourselves for another battle” — an apparent reference to a subsequent attack on the separate CIA facility in Benghazi.
The attackers who staged the initial assault had apparently learned of the facility’s location by following U.S. vehicles fleeing the diplomatic mission.
Although widely seen at the scene of the attack, Abu Khattala made no attempt to flee even after President Obama vowed to bring swift justice to the perpetrators.
Abu Khattala may have reckoned that nowhere was as safe for him as Benghazi, where Libya’s weak central government feared exerting its authority because of the superior power of the local Islamist militias.
His neighborhood, in particular, is known for a high concentration of like-minded Islamist militants. When false rumors of an imminent U.S. attempt to capture Abu Khattala sprung up in recent months, his neighbors took to the streets with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and truck-mounted artillery to defend him.
Abu Khattala himself went back to his day job, as a construction contractor in blue Dickeys overalls.
When the revolt against Gadhafi broke out in Benghazi, Abu Khattala’s years in Abu Salim became an attractive credential. Young men raced to find tough-talking “sheiks” they could follow into battle.
He formed his own militia of perhaps two dozen fighters, naming it Obeida Ibn Al Jarra for an early Islamic general. And he stood out for his fearlessness in the early days of the uprising against Gadhafi in the spring of 2011, helping to defend the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya just as the United States, Britain, France and other NATO countries were weighing steps to support the rebels.
But Abu Khattala became notorious across Benghazi that summer when a group of Islamist militia leaders decided to “arrest” and investigate Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, the main commander of the rebel movement, who had become NATO’s preferred partner.
His captors held him overnight in the headquarters of Abu Khattala’s brigade. The bodies of Younes and two of his aides were found on a roadside the next day, riddled with bullets.
Abu Khattala appeared to enjoy his infamy. When the Islamist-dominated militias reorganized into a centralized coalition, he rejected it as insufficiently Islamist, because it supported the secular, Western-backed provisional government instead of demanding a theocracy. So he pulled back from the front.
“He thinks he owns God and everyone else is an infidel,” said Fawzi Bukatef, leader of the broader rebel coalition.
Abu Khattala’s neighbors and other residents of Benghazi were apparently unaware of his capture until the United States disclosed it, perhaps because of the ongoing fighting in the city.
A neighbor in the el-Leithi district said he saw Abu Khattala leaving his house alone on Sunday, wearing an Afghan style Gallabiya, with a Kalashnikov over one shoulder and a Belgian FN rifle over the other.