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Ahmed Abu Khattala is expected to be brought to Washington D.C. in the coming days for trial, where he could face the death penalty for his role in the killings of four Americans in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
Witnesses describe him directing militants who stormed the consulate, but Khattala has largely been living in public in Libya since the attack. Questions are being asked about what his role was in the attack and why he wasn’t captured until now.
The New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick interviewed Khattala in the days after the attack. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss Khattala and the significance of his capture.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
The suspect in that deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi two years ago is being questioned on board a Navy ship in the Mediterranean following his capture by the U.S. military in Libya on Sunday. Witnesses say Ahmed Abu Khattala directed militants who stormed the consulate in 2012. He's known as a local admirer of Al Qaeda but not a member. Reportedly the U.S. has been planning for a year to pick him up. He went underground a few months ago. When news of his capture came we thought immediately of David Kirkpatrick, Cairo Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who interviewed Akagi Khattala in days after the attack - at one point over a milkshake. At that time Khattala said he was not part of the attack but he seemed pretty puffed up about it. Let's bring back David Kirkpatrick who joins us from Cairo by Skype. David, welcome back.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Good to be here.
YOUNG: And, first of all your thoughts when you first heard of his capture?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, I'll be frank. I did think it's about time. You know, it was a remarkable situation. Here was this well-known, local militant - kind of a pariah, locally. Many people saw him leading or spearheading this attack, directing the fighters during the attack. And right afterwards the president (ph) vows to bring him to justice. And then there he is, having a strawberry frappe with me at a hotel. A few weeks later, in the summer after that, invited me over to his house for tea. He just seemed so brazen. And I wondered - how long could this go on?
YOUNG: Well, why do you think it took so long?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, the government of the United States, the people in the White House, for a while they were saying, you know, we're very concerned about destabilizing Libya's fragile, transitional government. It may be that they have come to the conclusion that Libya's fragile, transitional government is not going to get any more stable anytime soon. But I've also heard speculation from diplomats - there are issues of evidence. You know, the plan here was always to bring Mr. Ahmed Abu Khattala to justice in an American court. Where you need to meet American standards of evidence to prove his guilt. And that is difficult. The understanding I have is that for the first part of the attack he was outside of the compound - he was directing the fighters who went in. And I have a lot of reasons to believe that's the case. Then, a little bit later on, as things are underway he's inside inspecting - he's on the video cameras. But to put together his role as the author or director of the attack that ultimately killed the ambassador by smoke inhalation in a burning building, that requires a lot of connective material. I think if you're a prosecutor you need somebody who knows how it all went down to tell you as a witness, this is what Abu Khattala did here and there and when. And that's a hard thing to prove.
YOUNG: Well, and so you're saying there's two different reasons the White House wanted to make sure that they had lock solid case. Because they do want to take him to a criminal court in Washington D.C. and not Guantanamo. And so they need to have the evidence they would need in a regular court. And also because this has become so politicized they wanted to make sure maybe every I was dotted. But in the meantime, how does this square with your early reporting on this? As you well know, Republicans are accusing the White House of intentionally misleading people ahead of the presidential election about what really sparked this attack because White House officials initially portrayed it as a spontaneous protest inspired by that anti-Islam video that was also causing riots in Cairo. The White House opponents were saying that it actually was an organized terror attack which sort of undermined White House claims that they had tamped down some of the terrorism in the region. You reported that it was kind of a mix of the two - that people had been inspired by the video and then were directed when they got there. Are you still standing by that? And what are witnesses telling you about how Khattala might have played a role in that?
KIRKPATRICK: I am standing absolutely by our account from the first day which we confirmed after months of further reporting. And that is basically that this was an attack inspired in part by anger at the movie - imitating in part the earlier events at a protest against the movie in Cairo. But also a real attack, you know, a planned event - it was not a street protest where people carrying placards did then get out of hand. This was an attack - a straight forward attack where people show up with guns and they proceed to shoot through the dorms and from there. So there's a little bit - at least a little bit of planning that went into it. That's been clear I think to the people of Benghazi right from the start.
YOUNG: Well, what do you have witnesses saying about what Khattala might have said about that video?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, we've got a couple things here that make us pretty confident that the video played a role. First we should stipulate that the American Intelligence Agency has also concluded that the video played a role, so we're not out on a limb here. Second, we had a Libyan journalist working on the ground the night of the attack. He went to the attack within the mob trying to get into the compound and see what was happening. And the guards coming out of the compound said this was an attack happening because of the offensive video. He learned for the first time of the video from the attackers. Thirdly, we have a witness - and I need to protect this person - but he's a witness who was quite close to Mr. Abu Khattala during the night as the attack was unfolding then received a lecture from him about the importance of defending the prophets by destroying the compound.
YOUNG: Did he mention the video?
KIRKPATRICK: Yes. That's what I'm saying. He mentioned the video. Defending the honor of the prophet from this appalling American-made video by destroying the compound. Later on, what I said to him, I said, well, Mr. Abu Khattala, what do you think? You think it makes sense to kill an ambassador and destroy a diplomatic compound in retribution for something as small as an online video? And he pointedly declined to say - he said something like, from a religious perspective, you know, it's hard to say. So clearly he thought this was a fine thing to do and to Libyans - other Libyans, not foreign journalists, not for public consumption. To other Libyans at the time he was lecturing them about the importance of conducting this attack as retribution for the video.
YOUNG: And just, David, to wrap up here, you say that he was a vocal smalltime Islamist militant. Others that you quote say that he became a bogeyman after he gained power in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. But others also said he seemed a little unhinged. I mean...
KIRKPATRICK: You're asking where does he fit into the landscape of Benghazi militias and how could somebody so nuts get away with something like this?
YOUNG: Well, yeah.
KIRKPATRICK: You know, it's a very interesting question. I mean, he is someone who even other Jihadis considering an erratic extremist. Somebody who considered his fellow Islamist is not Islamist enough and broke with them in the first month of the uprising against Col. Gaddafi. So he was always a pariah. And yet in this kind of a total vacuum of law and order and also of leadership he was able to attract a kind of a small band of followers. And he was working in an atmosphere where there was basically a lot of dry kindling. You know, there was a lot of young men with weapons, a lot of people very hyped up, a lot of people who were quite inclined already to defend their country and their religion from the spectrum of Western interference. And easy to believe that, you know, ready to believe that the Western powers have helped them overthrow Col. Gaddafi were now going to try to change their country. And so here he comes as this video throws the match and he is ready to fan the flames.
YOUNG: David Kirkpatrick, Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times, who interviewed Abu Khattala - the Benghazi suspect in the days after the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in a Benghazi, Libya. David, thank you.
KIRKPATRICK: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And again David joined us by Skype. So you want to weigh in? Go online, we want to hear from you. Leave a comment with this story at hereandnow.org. And by the way, there are other conversations about other stories going on at facebook.com/hereandnowradio, join in there as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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