BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Just days after President Obama vowed to hunt down and bring to justice those responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound here, Ahmed Abu Khattala -- one of those considered a ringleader -- spent two leisurely hours Thursday evening at a luxury hotel full of journalists, scoffing at the threats coming from both the American and Libyan governments.
Libya's fledgling national army was a "national chicken," Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission's attackers, he chuckled at the weakness of the Libyan authorities. And he accused U.S. leaders of "playing with the emotions of the American people" and "using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections."
Abu Khattala's defiance -- no authority has even questioned him about the attack, he said, and he has no plans to go into hiding -- offered insight into the shadowy landscape of the self-formed militias that have come to constitute the only source of social order in Libya since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West.
Although Abu Khattala, 41, said he was not a member of Al-Qaida, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al-Qaida's puritanical zeal for Islamic law.
And he said that the U.S. had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?" he asked.
NEW YORK TIMES