Nabbed Libyan militant lived openly in Benghazi

2014-06-18 08:05
A vehicle sits smouldering in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi. (AFP, File)

A vehicle sits smouldering in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi. (AFP, File)

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Cairo - The Libyan militant suspected in the deadly 11 September 2012 attack on Americans in Benghazi was not a difficult man to find.

Ahmed Abu Khattala lived openly and freely in the restive eastern Libyan city — seen at cafes and in public places — even after the US administration named him and another militant as suspects in the attack two years ago that killed the US ambassador to Libya.

"I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles," he told The Associated Press late last year after he was first accused. He denied the allegations and said he didn't fear being abducted from Libya.

That changed on Sunday when he was detained by US forces, marking the first US apprehension of an alleged perpetrator in the assault that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Abu Khattala is being held in an undisclosed location outside of Libya and will be tried in US court, according to the Pentagon press secretary, Navy Rear Administrator John Kirby.

A man who identified himself as Abu Khattala's brother, Abu Bakr, called the AP office in Cairo to ask if reports his brother had been detained were true.

Renewed fighting

He confirmed that his brother has been absent and his phone switched off since Sunday. He hung up after hearing the information about the capture and did not provide more details or comment.

Abu Khattala, was the commander of a militant group called the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade. Washington has accused him of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, which is believed to be behind the attack and was listed by the US as a terrorist group in January.

Abu Khattala's detention on Sunday coincided with renewed fighting between Islamist militia in Benghazi and troops loyal to renegade General Khalifa Hifter, who had waged a campaign against Ansar al-Shariah and other groups in the city. It was not clear if Abu Khattala had joined the fighting.

He claimed his group was only operational during the 2011 war against ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and has since disbanded.

A witness interviewed by AP following the attack said Abu Khattala was at present at the building when it came under attack nearly two years ago, directing fighters. He admitted being there, but said he was helping in the rescue of men trapped in the area.

Islamic militants

"It was the first time I learned that there was a US consulate in this place," Abu Khattala said a month after the attack. "And I never learned about, met, or had any relation with the US ambassador."

He said authorities never questioned him.

His confidence partly stemmed from the power that Islamic militants have accumulated in Libya since Gaddafi was ousted and killed. Militia groups, some of them inspired by al-Qaeda, have operated with virtual impunity in the country, with the central government too weak to take action against them.

Abu Khattala, believed to be in his early 40s, had been imprisoned four to five times between 1996 and 2010 in Abu Salim prisons during Gaddafi’s rule, a notorious prison in the capital where most of his Islamist opponents were held. He was released in 2010 under a government amnesty.

But his name had surfaced as a suspect in the assassination of Abdel-Fattah Younis, the former top security chief under Gaddafi who defected to rebels and was gunned down along with his bodyguards in July 2011. Rebels then disbanded Abu Khattala's group, and some members are believed to have joined Ansar al-Shariah.

Mysterious character

He said he has since been working as a construction contractor.

Abu Khattala, believed to be originally from the western city of Misrata, seemed to be a mysterious character with few friends in Benghazi. A resident in the city who agreed to talk about him on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety said people feared to even get close to the al-Lithi neighborhood where Abu Khattala lived.

Mohammed Abu Sedra, an Islamist lawmaker in Libya, said he knew Abu Khattala during his imprisonment in Abu Salim.

"I remember that he was very introverted, depressed all the time and never talked to anyone. I always thought that he was not normal," Abu Sedra said.

Read more on:    chris stevens  |  ahmed abu khattala  |  muammar gaddafi  |  libya  |  us  |  north africa
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