U.S. Marshals move outside the federal U.S. District Court in Washington Saturday, June 28, 2014, after security was heightened in anticipation of a possible court appearance by captured Libyan militant Ahmed Abu Khattala later in the day. Khatallah is one of the men accused in the deadly Benghazi attack at the U.S. embassy in Libya. He faces criminal charges in the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans from the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
WASHINGTON – A lawyer for the Libyan militia leader suspected of playing a central role in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of her client Saturday.
The suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, was flown to Washington by helicopter shortly after sunrise from a Navy warship where he had been held since his capture two weeks ago in Libya by U.S. Special Operations forces.
Abu Khattala appeared for arraignment before a magistrate in the federal courthouse in Washington.
The plea of not guilty was in response to a single charge of conspiracy. Abu Khattala wore a black, hooded shirt and dark pants during the arraignment, which lasted about 10 minutes. He is next scheduled to appear in court Tuesday for a detention hearing, followed by a July 8 status hearing.
The Justice Department has charged Abu Khattala with three counts in connection with the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and a nearby CIA facility on Sept. 11, 2012. The attacks resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
Moving Abu Khattala to Washington to face charges was a significant step forward for the Obama administration. It had been criticized for moving too slowly to apprehend suspects, with Democrats and Republicans injecting partisan statements into the debate over proper embassy security and accurate assessments of militant threats.
Some also criticized the administration’s decision to prosecute Abu Khattala in civilian court, rather than through the military tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Current and former senior U.S. law enforcement officials briefed on the investigation of Abu Khattala said the next phase of the case — proving the charges against him in federal court — would be particularly challenging because the attacks occurred in a country that is not friendly to the United States.
Libyan witnesses are key
FBI investigators were not able to visit the crime scenes in Benghazi to collect evidence until several weeks after the attacks because of concerns about security there. The case also relies on testimony from Libyan witnesses who will most likely have to be flown to the United States to testify and who may not hold up well to being cross-examined.
Yet law enforcement officials expressed confidence in the work.
“We have plenty of evidence to convict this guy,” one senior official said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting him to the courthouse.”
The hostile environment in Libya and the difficulty of tracking down and interviewing all the witnesses were among the reasons the investigation took so long, even amid reports that Abu Khattala was meeting with reporters for drinks to discuss the attacks after they occurred.
“We were dealing with one of the most nonpermissive environments at the time, and our guys were able to put together a case,” the senior official said.
While U.S. intelligence agencies were able to intercept electronic conversations that could help the investigation, their classified nature makes them problematic to use in a public criminal trial, according to the officials.
The case is expected to be presented mainly on eyewitness accounts and video from the scene. Hundreds of hours of video from security cameras and other sources were analyzed to produce a narrative of the time leading up to the attacks, the siege of the mission and the CIA annex, and the aftermath, one of the officials said.
“The Department of Justice bats nearly 1,000 percent with these types of extraterritorial cases, but that’s because they put in so much diligence on the front end of the investigations,” said Neil MacBride, who was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia from 2009 to 2013. “You only have one shot here. You don’t go to the other side of the world to grab someone without knowing that there is a high probability of a conviction.”
The Justice Department “rarely asks the Department of Defense to grab someone,” MacBride said. “And the Department of Defense isn’t going to put its Special Operations forces on the ground without a high degree of certainty about a case.”