On Monday, June 16, three FBI agents, several Navy SEALs and approximately 24 Delta Force commandos captured the terrorist most wanted by the Obama administration in a classic snatch-and-grab "rendition" operation in Benghazi, Libya. The target of their raid was Ahmed Abu Khattala, a local jihadist who led an attack on the U.S. consulate and a CIA annex in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012 that led to the death of the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stephens, and three others. In light of the political scrum that developed after this tragedy, when Republicans accused the Obama administration of hiding the fact that the seemingly spontaneous Benghazi attack was in actuality an Al Qaeda Central pre-planned operation, the arrest of Khattala has tremendous ramifications ranging from the slums of post-Qaddafi Benghazi to the power halls of Washington.
The Rise of a Libyan Extremist
Abu Khattala was born in Benghazi, Libya in 1973 and was the son of a government employee. He ultimately turned against the government, however, and became an Islamist extremist at a young age. This led to his arrest and imprisonment at the notorious maximum security prison in Tripoli known as Abu Salim. Abu Khattala spent most of his adult life in Abu Salim before being released in an amnesty ordered by Colonel Qaddafi's son Seif al Islam in 2004. After that he became a construction worker.
When the revolt against Qaddafi broke out in February of 2011, Islamists in Benghazi were quick to join the fray. At this time several "sheikhs" rose up to lead ad hoc local militias, many of them having earned the right to be leaders based on their time spent in Qaddafi's prisons. Among them was Abu Khattala. He formed a small militia known as the Obeida Ibn Al Jarra, named for a Medieval Arab general.
Abu Khattala later became affiliated with the hardcore Islamist militia Ansar al Sharia (the Partisans of Sharia), a group of about 200 fighters. The New York Times, which did extensive on-the-ground reporting in Benghazi and interviews with Abu Khattala after the attack, claimed "Despite extensive speculation about the possible role of Al Qaeda...Mr. Abu Khattala is a local, small-time Islamist militant. He has no known connections to international terrorist groups." The U.S. government agrees with this finding and denies that there is any operational affiliation between Al Qaeda and the Benghazi-based Ansar al Shariah.
The Benghazi Attack and its Aftermath
As in the case of a near simultaneous attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo Egypt, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012 appears to have begun spontaneously as a result of the release of a movie in the U.S. mocking the Prophet Mohammad titled "The Innocence of Muslims." There is no evidence that Ayman al Zawaheri, the head of Al Qaeda Central, planned and executed the attacks from his hideout in the distant tribal regions of Pakistan. But eyewitnesses claim that Abu Khattala was spotted leading waves of swarming attackers and is reported to have told his followers to "flatten the consulate." He appeared to be in charge of the siege that led to the death of four Americans and embarrassed the Obama administration when its claims that the attacks were spontaneous and led by locals, not Al Qaeda Central, were attacked by Republicans
In the aftermath of the attack, the Obama administration's embarrassment, however, grew when the New York Times was able to travel to Libya and interview Khattala, now a "specially designated global terrorist," as he calmly sipped a strawberry frappe in a hotel. During his interview Khattala claimed he attacked the U.S. consulate because of the "Innocence of Muslims" video which ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad and denied being a member of Al Qaeda. Khattala seemed to flaunt his disdain for the Americans who asked the weak Libyan government to arrest him in vain. Khattala seemed to enjoy his notoriety and on several occasions threatened the Libyan government for promoting democracy instead of a shariah-based theocracy. Every week and month Khattala, who lived in an Islamist neighborhood packed with armed supporters known as el-Leithi, remained free was an embarrassment to the Obama administration which continued to face intense criticism from the Republicans.
Khattala's freedom of movement was curtailed when JSOC (the Army's Joint Special Operations Command) launched a raid in October of 2013 that led to the arrest of Abu Anas al Libi, a Libyan Al Qaeda terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head for participating in 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. An operation to capture Khattala at the time of the time of the arrest of al Libbi was cancelled at the time due to tactical difficulties, but Khattala realized that he could no longer move as openly. He now kept a lower profile and moved only with armed guards.
From then until May 2014 his location remained unknown. Then U.S. intelligence picked up his movements and found him residing in a villa with few guards around. On Friday, June 13, President Obama issued an order for the FBI and Delta Force to arrest Khattala and a plan was put in place to apprehend him in a house he was staying in on the south of Benghazi. On Monday morning, June 16, two dozen Delta Force commandos, some Navy SEALs and a handful of FBI agents converged on the outskirts of Benghazi. There they found Khattala alone, nabbed him after a brief fight, threw him into a waiting vehicle and transported him out of Libya to the USS New York, a U.S. Navy warship waiting off the Libyan coast. The whole covert operation, which lasted 30 minutes, was carried out unilaterally without notifying the Libyan government. Khattala is currently being debriefed for intelligence purposes. It can be assumed that the Obama administration will use the findings from this interrogation to disprove the notion that Khattala was an Al Qaeda operative and win political points against the Republicans who have made this contention without any evidence to support it.
Riding high on the success of the terrorist whose freedom had haunted the White House, Obama subsequently stated:
It's important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice.
Brian Glyn Williams is the author of The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime (2013), Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda (2013) and Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America's Longest War (2012).