In the court of public opinion, the 2012 Benghazi attack has been contentious. In the court of law, it's going to be a grind.
In the court of public opinion, the 2012 Benghazi attack has been contentious. In the court of law, it’s going to be a grind.
The suspect in the first prosecution arising from the attack is due back in court this week. His trial promises to be a thread-the-needle effort to prosecute and defend an alleged terrorist without spilling security secrets or running afoul of the rights accorded the accused in the U.S. justice system.
Questions and answers about what’s ahead in the case of Ahmed Abu Khattala, charged in the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, and information specialist Sean Smith:
Q: What’s the next step?
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A: A detention hearing Wednesday in the federal courthouse in Washington where Abu Khattala pleaded not guilty over the weekend.
Prosecutors will get the opportunity to release more details of their case as they outline why he should continue to be held, not released on bond or under any condition. He will almost certainly be directed to remain in custody.
Q: What’s the Justice Department doing?
A: Picking its steps carefully.
For the moment, Abu Khattala faces a one-count indictment accusing him of providing support to terrorists. That count is punishable with a life sentence, but the Justice Department has said it expects an additional indictment. If a criminal complaint unsealed after his capture is any indication, he could be looking at harsher punishment if convicted.
Q: What’s his story?
A: Back when he was a free man in Benghazi, frequenting cafes and other public places, Abu Khattala acknowledged he had been at the scene of the attack but said he only went to help rescue trapped men. He said it was then that he learned the city had a U.S. consulate. A witness told AP he appeared to be directing fighters. The trial is sure to probe those conflicting accounts.
He also stated that the militant group he’d commanded, the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade, disbanded after the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi and he went to work as a construction contractor. He’d been in and out of the notorious Abu Salim prison four or five times during Gadhafi’s rule. Prison mate Abu Sedra, an Islamist lawmaker, said Abu Khattala was “depressed all the time” and “I always thought that he was not normal.”
Late last year, after the U.S. had identified him as a suspect, Abu Khattala, who wasn’t hard to find around Benghazi, shrugged off the prospect of being captured and taken away. “I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles,” he told The Associated Press.
Q: Who’s his lawyer?
A: Michelle Peterson, a veteran assistant federal public defender.
Peterson’s clients have included Afghan drug trafficker Haji Bagcho, sentenced to life in prison in 2012, and Eric Justin Toth, a private school teacher who appeared on the FBI’s list of most wanted fugitives. Toth was sentenced in March to 25 years in prison on child pornography charges.
Q: What’s the government’s story?
A: Much of it is under wraps.
Prosecutors on Saturday unsealed a two-page grand jury indictment charging Abu Khattala with conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists, knowing that they would be used to carry out a killing during an attack on a federal facility.
Earlier, the U.S. accused him of being a member of the group believed to be behind the attack, Ansar al-Shariah.
Abu Khattala was freed from Libyan prison in a 2010 general amnesty. In 2011, he was a suspect in the killing of Gadhafi’s security chief, gunned down after he defected to the rebels.
Q: What’s so tricky about this?
A: It’s not easy gathering evidence and witnesses from a hostile foreign country, and some of that information may be classified. The defense is sure to explore whether Abu Khattala was treated properly in his interrogation aboard a Navy ship after U.S. special forces captured him in early June during a nighttime raid. And concerns are always raised about danger to the public when a high-profile terrorist suspect is held inside the U.S.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said interrogations such as the one Abu Khattala underwent are designed to gain “actionable intelligence” but also information that can be admitted at a criminal trial. “I think that we were successful at doing that in this matter,” he said.
The civilian justice system proved capable of handling the March conviction of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law in New York. On the other hand, a 2009 plan to prosecute alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was scuttled because of opposition to that course.