The capture of Libyan terror suspect Ahmed Abu Khatallah could provide valuable information about the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. While viewed as a political victory for President Barack Obama, the volatile issue of how his administration handled the attack appears unlikely to go away anytime soon.
The president said Tuesday that the Khatallah's capture near Libya’s second-largest city on Sunday sends a message around the world.
"When Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice, and that’s the message I sent the day after it happened and, regardless of how long it takes, we will find you, and I want to make sure that everybody around the world hears that message very clearly," the president said, adding that Khattalah will now face the "full weight" of the American justice system.
According to Colin Clarke, a counter-insurgency analyst with the RAND Corporation, this first arrest, two years after the Benghazi attack is symbolically important.
"Just because of the magnitude of the Benghazi attacks, all the political follow on that’s occurred in the United States," he said. "But, if this individual, as alleged, was a key member of this attack, then certainly was some operational expertise, some terrorist tradecraft he was capable of striking again. So, I think both operational and symbolically important."
A Reuters news agency report said that U.S. ambassador at the U.N., Samantha Power, told the Security Council that Katallah had been planning to attack more Americans and that justified his capture.
The White House said Khatallah, identified as a senior leader of the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, will not be sent to the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Instead, he will face murder charges in a civilian court, where other terror suspects have been tried.
Clarke hopes that pre-trial interrogation of the suspect will yield valuable intelligence on his accomplices.
"What intel can be gleaned from the suspect is to be determined, but this is probably one of the best chances the United States has, once they get to interrogate this individual, to learn some more information and put together a more detailed sketch of what this [terror] network looked like," Clarke noted.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that “the most valuable thing we can get from this terrorist is information about who else was involved” in the attack. He said “we’ll be watching closely to see how much information they glean from him and how they’re handling it.”
Congress has been holding numerous investigations into the handling of the Benghazi attack by the Obama Administration, which originally said it was the result of the release of an anti-Muslim video. Later, it acknowledged it was a terrorist attack.
Hillary Clinton, then the Secretary of State, has been accused of providing inadequate security at the consulate. Clinton, seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said Tuesday she is pleased with the capture of Khatallah. She said he has been very much on the mind of U.S. officials since the attack and should help piece together what happened.
Pat Smith, mother of one of the slain Americans, Sean Smith, said, when told of the arrest, she still has not received a telephone call from the government about why her son died. He said she deserves to know and hopes such a tragedy doesn’t happen to anyone else.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says Katallah’s capture is good news for the White House and Clinton.
"Benghazi isn’t going to go away. Grabbing somebody now, a couple of years after the fact, is not enough for those who believe the whole Benghazi episode was mishandled and those American lives didn’t have to be lost," Sabato said. "Having said that, it’s certainly good news that one of the principals involved in this will be brought to justice. Now, others are criticizing the fact that we’re going to try him apparently in civilian courts. I don’t think that’s finalized yet, but many Republicans want him to go to Guantanamo. Well, Guantanamo is highly controversial abroad and President Obama pledged to close Guantanamo. By the way, it is a pledge that he has utterly for at least five and one-half years."
Sabato says the United States is in the midst of a campaign season leading to congressional elections in November that could see opposition Republicans take control of the Senate, along with the House of Representatives, thus rendering Obama less influential in his final two years in office.
Sabato says he does not expect the arrest to have any major impact on ongoing congressional hearings into Benghazi, except to give Democrats some debating points.