The United States says it has captured a key suspect in the 2012 assault on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans.
The Defense Department said Tuesday that a military unit, along with law enforcement personnel, arrested Ahmed Abu Khatallah on Sunday and is holding him in a secure location outside of Libya. He was identified as a senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the terror group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.
Several government officials say he is being held aboard a U.S. naval ship, and President Barack Obama said Khatallah is being brought back to the United States to stand trial.
Prosecutors have charged him with murder and other charges, and intend to try him in the U.S. civilian court system, not the country's military courts.
Military officials gave no details of the operation, but said there were no civilian casualties related to it and that all U.S. personnel involved in it had safely left Libya.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah
- Thought to be 43
- State Department says he is a leader of Ansar al-Sharia
- Formed an Islamist militia
- Jailed for several years by Moammar Gadhafi
- Denies involvement in 2012 attack on U.S. consulate in Benghazi
- The U.S. had named him a 'specially designated global terrorist'
In a statement, Obama said he had authorized the mission as part of his "priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans." He said the Libyan "will now face the full weight of the American justice system."
A White House spokeswoman said Tuesday the administration has ruled out a military trial for Khatallah at the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating that the civilian criminal justice system has repeatedly proven it can successfully prosecute terror suspects and gather intelligence.
Besides Stephens, the victims included Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Obama praised U.S. military, law enforcement and intelligence personnel involved in the mission, saying the government will “continue our efforts to bring to justice those who were responsible for the Benghazi attacks.” He added that the United States “will also sustain our support for the Libyan people, as they work to overcome years of tyranny and do the difficult work of building a democracy.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, noting the department “felt the loss of our colleagues in Benghazi acutely, also lauded the U.S. military, saying its “bold action … is a clear reminder to anyone who dares do us harm that they will not escape with impunity.”
The U.S. filed charges against Khatallah and others last year, but until now had not apprehended any of them. Obama said the capture of Khatallah showed that the U.S. "will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans." He vowed to apprehend others responsible for the attack.
The embassy attack on Sept. 11, 2012, occurred on the anniversary of the massive 2001al-Qaida attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The circumstances surrounding the attack have proved to be contentious in U.S. politics. Republicans have accused Hillary Rodham Clinton, the possible 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, of failing to provide adequate security at the Benghazi compound to prevent the attacks, which occurred during her time as secretary of state.
Speaking on CNN television, Clinton said that she is still looking for answers, calling the incident "a confusing and difficult time." She also said she hopes Khatallah's arrest will answer such questions as who was behind the attack and what the motivations were.
White House officials at first indicated the attack was related to protests over an anti-Muslim video, similar to demonstrations occurring in the Mideast in early September 2012. But U.S. officials later acknowledged that it was terrorist attack.
Numerous investigations of the Benghazi attack already have been undertaken and a new, Republican-controlled congressional panel is set to hold hearings in the coming weeks.
Khatallah is said to be a senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the terror group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. The U.S. filed charges against him and others last year, but no one has been arrested until now.
Luis Ramirez contributed to this report from the White House.